Docurama // 2011 // 121 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // August 11th, 2012
The 18-year fight to prove the innocence of the West Memphis Three.
In the case of the West Memphis Three, there were no winners.
Teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley spent 18 years in prison after being convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Echols received the death penalty, while Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life plus 40 years. The verdicts came despite a lack of substantial forensic evidence and were based largely on conjecture and witness statements of questionable reliability. That Echols and Baldwin were local outcasts given to wearing black and listening to heavy metal music didn't help their public profile, particularly given that this was in the early '90s, when hysteria about "satanic cults" being blamed for the alleged ritual abuse and murder of children was in full swing.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who'd already made the powerful "justice documentary" Brother's Keeper, traveled to Arkansas to document the trial. The more they observed, the more they became convinced that justice was not being served. The filmmakers were granted a high level of access, interviewing families of the victims and of the accused, the police and the lawyers, and the teens themselves; they also filmed the trial. The result was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a 1996 documentary that brought national attention to the case. Berlinger and Sinofsky followed this up with Paradise Lost 2: Revelations four years later, which documented the appeals attempts, the discovery of new evidence, the efforts to free the teens (or at least get them a new trial), and the implication that the real killer might have been a family member of one of the victims.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory offers a summation of events covered in the first two films before examining what has gone on since the second installment. Archival footage -- some used in the earlier films, some not -- is interspersed with new interviews. The film notes how celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks have taken up the cause, and focuses notably on how even the views of the locals have changed as more information has been revealed indicating that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley did not receive fair trials.
While advances in forensic science undoubtedly helped the case, there are several fairly startling revelations. One key witness recanted her testimony, insisting that she'd been coerced by the police; evidence of juror misconduct is brought to light; and a woman claims she had seen the boys with one of their stepfathers just prior to their disappearance -- significant because this stepfather claimed not to have seen the boys at all on the night they died, and because years earlier, while investigating the crime, the police never interviewed this neighbor. One man -- another stepfather who'd been eyed as possibly being involved in the killings -- has changed his viewpoint on the West Memphis Three, going from calling for their heads to championing their release.
What's perhaps most remarkable, particularly where Echols and Baldwin are concerned, is how the three matured. They are not hardened products of the prison system; rather, they come across as thoughtful, articulate, and purposeful young men. Remarkable also is how the sentiments of the community have evolved, from grief-blinded cries for vengeance to a more reasoned desire for the truth, whatever it might be.
As the film progresses, we see headway being made, but it's an arduous process; judges and prosecutors don't like to be second-guessed. In the end, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are freed after agreeing to an Alford plea, a bizarre legal remedy in which they plead guilty to the crime but are allowed to profess their innocence. In exchange for this plea, the West Memphis Three were allowed to go free, with their 18-year prison stints considered "time served." While no one was completely happy having to plead guilty to a crime for which they maintained they were innocent, the fact that Echols was facing execution convinced them to accept it. The film also addresses a possible new suspect, though it's unclear by the end if the authorities will pursue this.
The Paradise Lost trilogy is a moving, maddening document. It is impossible to watch these films and not get frustrated with the almost casual ineptness of the investigation, the apparently foregone conclusion that the three were guilty despite the lack of hard evidence, and the aching sense of powerlessness in the face of hysteria and expedience. Berlinger and Sinofsky have amassed a vastly impressive amount of material -- skillfully edited by Alyse Ardell Spiegel -- to create one of the most vital series of documentaries in the history of film. As Echols notes during an interview from death row, had it not been for these films, he would likely have been executed.
While Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory might be the final chapter, it's hardly the end of the story. Check out the West Memphis Three Web Site for updates on the case, as well as the continuing efforts to fully exonerate Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley.
Given that so much of it is culled from archival footage, TV news broadcasts, and interviews often conducted under less-than optimal conditions (in jail, for instance), Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory looks fine. The Dolby Surround audio track is perfectly clear, and the lack of subtitles is not an issue.
For supplements, we get four "bonus scenes," some of which were shot for the earlier installments and not used; these segments alone, which include an interview with the witness who recanted and evidence that the police "lost," are enough to make your blood boil. There's also a panel discussion with the filmmakers and the three young men after their release, as well as an interview with Sinofsky and Berlinger.
The real American horror stories have nothing to do with hauntings, legends, or anything supernatural. The real American horror stories have to do with the bastardization of justice. Look at the cases taken on by the Innocence Project. Read books like Edward Humes' Mean Justice or Witch Hunt by Kathryn Lyon. These are real American horror stories.
The West Memphis Three saga is a real American horror story, and the Paradise Lost trilogy is a remarkably detailed examination of that horror.
I'm pleased to call this one not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Scenes
* Panel Discussion
* West Memphis Three Web Site
* The Innocence Project