I like Metallica. I tend to wear a lot of black.
Because of this, I could have been suspected of murder in West Memphis, Arkansas.
In 1993, three eight year old boys were found brutally murdered. Believing the killings were “satanic” in nature, the police focused their attention on three teenage boys who did not fit in with the culture of their Bible Belt community. The Paradise Lost documentaries follow the trial and conviction of the three teenagers and the efforts to get them released from prison.
I was vaguely aware of the “West Memphis Three,” as the teens came to be known, before watching the documentaries but didn’t know much about the specific details of the case. I was prompted to watch the Paradise Lost trilogy after the first film was featured on Current TV’s series, 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die and because the story had been back in the news relatively recently. What unfolded in the series was a fascinating case of the dangers of being different and a clear miscarriage of justice.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hill Hills (1996) is the story of the investigation and trial of the three teenage boys. After the bodies of the three young boys are found sexually mutilated in the woods, the police assume that the killings were part of a satanic sacrifice. Based on the confession of 17 year old Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Misskelley were arrested and charged with the murders. Misskelley, who claimed his confession was coerced, was tried first and was found guilty and sentenced to 40+ years in prison. Echols and Baldwin were tried together. Both were found guilty; Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison and Echols was sentenced to death. Misskelley refused to testify in their trial and his confession was not admissable. No physical evidence was introduced in the trial that tied any of the three to the crime scene, but much was made of Echols interest in Wicca and the boys preference in clothing and music. From the prosecution’s closing argument:
Anything wrong with wearing black in and of itself? No. Anything wrong with the heavy metal stuff in and of itself? No. Anything wrong with the Book of Shadows in and of itself? No. But when you look at it together, you begin to see inside Damien Echols. And you look inside there and there isn’t a soul there.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) picks up five years later and looks at what life is like for the three boys in prison and their efforts to have their convictions overturned on appeal. The filmmakers also profile some of support groups that have formed for the West Memphis 3 and who believe, based on viewing the first film, that the boys were wrongly convicted. A large amount of time is spent with Mark Byers, adoptive stepfather to one of the slain boys, who has been rumored to have something to do with the killings.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) focuses on the final push to overturn the convictions of the West Memphis 3, now imprisoned for almost 18 years, before the execution of Damien Echols. DNA and other forensic evidence, not available at their original trial, has been discovered that lends credence to their claims of innocence. Issues of possible jury misconduct were also examined, as well as new rumors as to who the killer may actually be. The third film has been nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for best documentary.
The three films present a riveting case study of our judicial system and its failings. The boys clearly did not receive a fair trial. They were the sacrificial lambs that gave the town a quick resolution and allowed the police to close the book on the case. The fact that they didn’t fit in made it even easier to convict them with nothing more than rumor and the questionable confession of Misskelley. The trial in many ways was reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. While I was not immediately convinced that they had absolutely no involvement in the crime after the first film (Echols narcissism at 18 did him no favors), there was more than reasonable doubt. As someone who studied the courts during graduate school, it was frustrating for me to see it all unfold. It is one thing to know that false convictions occur; it is another to watch it happen.
While the clear focus of the films is the West Memphis Three, the time spent with Mark Byers is fascinating as well. He looms especially large in the second film and his bizarre behavior and checkered past raises serious questions about his involvement in the murder of his stepson. However, by devoting so much time to him in the film because of gossip and his “eccentricities,” it could be argued that the filmmakers are guilty of the same prejudice that convicted the three teens. While the Paradise Lost documentarians are ultimately not concerned with uncovering the person responsible for the crimes, that subject is the focus of the documentary West of Memphis which is currently being shown at Sundance.
William Blackstone once said that it is “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” The Paradise Lost trilogy convincing demonstrates what happens when we fail to live up that principle. Three young men lost almost 20 years of their lives. Three eight year old boys are still waiting for their justice.
The Paradise Lost films are now available on www.hbogo.com. Some of the graphic images in the films may be upsetting to some viewers.