In response to the news that the “West Memphis Three” — Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelly and Jason Baldwin — had been freed after spending 18 years in prison for their conviction of the brutal slaying of three young boys, HBO announced it will re-air two documentaries that followed the case and shoved it into the national and, as it turns out, international spotlight.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills airs Monday at 5pm, followed Tuesday by Paradise Lost 2: Revelations at 5:45. Both films are also currently available on HBO On Demand and HBO GO, the network’s mobile streaming app, through Sept. 30.
If you haven’t seen Paradise Lost, I’d still heartily recommend doing so. It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who went on to helm the acclaimed Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster, and even if you feel you know the story from all the news reports, you’ll pick up a level of unvarnished detail that is innately valuable. But it is a shame you won’t get to see it independent of all the recent hubbub. Taking a recommendation from Siskel & Ebert, I watched the film back in 1996 not long after it debuted on home video. I only knew it was supposed to be a riveting story about an unthinkable crime in a small town with the prime suspects being three teenagers roughly my own age. As the film went on, I began to get this nagging feeling that maybe the three defendants weren’t actually guilty, in spite of the virtual certainty on display by nearly everyone in the film that they were. There was relatively little solid evidence placing them there, and the stepfather of one of the victims — the since notorious John Mark Byers — seemed a more likely suspect. I wasn’t sure if this was the direction the film was going, but eventually that proved to be the case.
Inextricably tied into the legal proceedings in Paradise Lost is the issue that emerged as the heart of the “Free the West Memphis 3” movement: society’s harsh judgment of outsiders. Here were three teens the small town decided were the killers largely because they wore black and listened to heavy metal. The ringleader, Echols, even admitted to being a Wiccan. Well then, of course he was the killer in this crime that was never actually proven to be part of a Satanic ritual, but sure must have been, right? Adding to the surreal atmosphere is the moment when the documentary filming actually impacts the case when a certain bit of evidence is introduced during an interview that may be germane to the proceedings. That was the first time I could remember a documentary becoming such a part of the story.
I wasn’t angry after watching Paradise Lost as much as I was confused. I was pretty sure the teens — who were not yet known as the West Memphis 3 — were innocent, but I wasn’t ready to march the streets in protest. Watching the movie now, you might be surprised how relatively evenhanded it is, especially if you go in expecting a polemic against small-town prejudice and a wonky justice system. But as more people saw the movie, they did get enraged, and a grass-roots movement to free them emerged.
That fallout is chronicled in Paradise Lost 2, which brings the injustice done to these men into stark light as the evidence presented against them continues to fall apart. Byers becomes the main villain, as his public behavior points further to him being a disturbed man who craves the spotlight. He is involved in another suspicious death, and it’s strongly suggested by many that he is the true criminal. But resting on that conclusion might be just as erroneous as what happened back in 1993 when the murders occurred. Overall, Paradise Lost 2 has its moments — the strongest being the confrontations between Byers and the West Memphis 3 advocates, and footage of Echols seven years after his conviction, not as a sullen teenager but a thoughtful adult resigned to his fate — but it plays more as an interesting postscript. There’s not much in the way of a beginning, middle and end as there is just a collection of material that has popped up since the original. We see lots of conversations with people who campaign to free the West Memphis 3, people who have little to do with West Memphis, Ark. There are the celebrities, of course, who have since become most identified with the cause. But both films are worth seeing if you want to consider yourself truly informed on the matter.
In an amazing bit of timing, Berlinger and Sinofsky were ready to screen Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory at film festivals just as the announcement came that the West Memphis 3 were going free. That has resulted in a revised ending, as you might imagine, and the new version is set to air on HBO in January.