For audiences familiar with the 1996 HBO documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” and its 2000 sequel, the saga of the three young men known as the West Memphis 3 has exclusively taken place during their time behind bars. Only in “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” which premiered in its completed version at the New York Film Festival on Monday night, do the prisoners finally make their way to freedom, the result of entering the little-known Alford Plea in August that allowed the accused to plead guilty in the 1993 murders of three young men while maintaining their innocence.
However, although the new film ends with the West Memphis 3 on the outside, it doesn’t detail what comes next. Speaking to a roomful of journalists at HBO headquarters in midtown Manhattan prior to the New York Film Festival screening Monday, newly released prisoners Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr. (both of whom had been sentenced to life) and Damien Echols (who was on death row) discussed how the difficult process of adjustment was coming along. Joined onstage by “Paradise Lost” directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky as well as longtime president of HBO Documentary Films Sheila Nevins, the former prisoners detailed many of the challenges they had faced. The audience included many of the subjects of the film, including lawyers and activists whose efforts helped spread word of the prisoners’ situation.
Misskelley, whom the films identity as “mildly retarded” and with a low IQ (part of the reason he may have been coaxed into providing officials with a false confession in 1993), said that using the internet and cell phones continued to provide a unique learning experience. However, he appeared exceedingly nervous in front of the press and eventually excused himself from the room while the other men stayed put.
Wearing a pair of sharp blue sunglasses to shield his still-sensitive eyes and characteristically dressed in black, Echols said that he was still getting used to walking around without having his feet chained together, and often fell down in the days following his release. He also said that he had been keeping track of various first-time experiences. “The first movie I saw was that horrendous ‘Fright Night’ remake,” he joked. “The first thing I ate was a Black Angus burger.” He also mentioned that he recently attended Disneyland, and “I’ve even been saving hotel room keys.”
Baldwin showed off his drivers permit and said that he planned on starting driver’s ed next week. He also took a job at a construction company and recently received his first paycheck. On the cultural front, Baldwin added that he attended a rock concert featuring the Seattle band Carissa’s Wierd.
The conversation took on a graver tone when journalists asked the men about the unsolved murders. Echols, an ardent critic of the death penalty who expressed frustration over the controversial execution of Troy Davis last month, condemned the state of Arkansas for neglecting their own case over the years. “I think they know exactly who did it and just don’t care,” he said, noting that he had received letters from junior high school students who appeared to have a better handle on the case than any Arkansas officials. “Their first and only priority was getting elected,” he said. When a reporter asked Echols about the possibility that Terry Hobbs, a stepfather of one of the children, committed the crimes – an allegation explored in “Paradise Lost 3”- Echols offered a concise response. “You could go crazy thinking about that,” he said.
When the issue of whether a fourth film could be made came up, Nevins jumped in. “I think Jason’s loyalty to Damien is Shakespearean,” she said, a reference to Baldwin’s willingness to accept the Alford Plea in order to rescue Echols from death row. “If the story has to be told, we’ll tell it.” At that point, Berlinger turned to the remaining two members of the West Memphis 3 left onstage. “Is that OK with you?” he asked them. Echols replied, “I don’t see why not.”
Expanding on her literary reading of the story, Nevins cited the ending of Anne Frank’s diary, where the ill-fated teenager asserts that “in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Nevins asked the men if they agreed with that statement. “They’re definitely still good,” Baldwin said. Echols gave a more complex answer. “That’s far too big of a conclusion for me to reach now,” he said. “Give me 50 years.”