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by Eric Kohn
August 29, 2011 7:50 AM
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Critic's Notebook | How the West Memphis 3 Release Transformed The "Paradise Lost" Documentaries

When the trio of Arkansas men convicted of crimes they may not have committed 18 years ago suddenly found themselves free on August 19, a significant chapter in the saga of the "West Memphis 3" came to a dramatic close. However, for viewers familiar with their struggles, the story had already ended twice before.

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's groundbreaking 1996 HBO documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills" brought global attention to the defendants and the messy trial that led to their convictions on the basis of specious evidence. In 1999, the filmmakers followed with "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," which found the former teenagers, now in their early twenties, attempting to return to the courtroom with the help of newfound support.

In a few weeks, the filmmakers will unveil "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," the installment that abruptly landed a new ending this month. In the meantime, HBO is re-airing the existing two films this week, providing a unique opportunity to evaluate them in light of recent events. It's safe to say that they have taken on an entirely new dimension.

The case details have been repeated many times, threaded through court testimonies, back-room legal strategy sessions and news reports. In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a ditch, naked and gruesomely mutilated below the waist. Within days, three teenagers were quickly snatched up: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., whose inaccurate confession sealed their initial fate.

Although Misskelley later recanted his story, citing coercion by the police, the juries didn't hesitate. Baldwin and Misskelley landed life imprisonment while Echols found himself on death row. Despite many attempts to poke holes in the accusations over the years, it wasn't until the men entered Alford pleas, a little-known law that allowed them to plead guilty while maintaing their innocence, that a judge was able to sentence them to time served and set them free.

Until this month, "Paradise Lost" and its sequel were sad, haunted works about the victims of a broken justice system. While that mood hasn't changed, the movies are now enlivened with new value. The first entry's guiding narrative involved the filmmakers' incredible access to courtroom proceedings. Through one witness interrogation after another, the directors paint a delicate portrait of appearance and reality in continual headlock. Echols, with his grim heavy-metal style and developing interest in the Wiccan religion, makes for an easy target.

And so the defense barrels down on him by way of stereotyping rather than empirical evidence. Baldwin was basically tacked onto Echols' coattails, and Miskelley doomed himself before his trial even began. Interviews with bereaved parents of the dead children illustrate the essential disconnect: "They ain't gonna kill no babies anymore," one of them utters after the final sentencing, underlining how their need for catharsis overruled the importance of a fair trial.

At 2 1/2 hours, "Paradise Lost" remains an exhausting work of cinematic journalism, combining a classical vérité approach with profound investigative skills. Its capacity to emphasize the injustice explains the outpouring of support that the West Memphis 3 received after the film's release. More than that, the tireless efforts to reevaluate the case and fight bias undoubtedly paved the way to their exoneration, even though it hasn't cleared their names.

"Paradise Lost 2" lacks the same immediacy and, because the directors weren't allowed in the courtroom, feels less essential. However, it provides a snapshot of time passed in much the same manner that Michael Apted's "Up Series" portrayed a group of Brits from their childhood and into middle age.

"Paradise Lost 2" shows that the West Memphis 3 grew up and didn't go crazy, a miracle in itself that adds substantial intrigue to the media curiosity surrounding their next steps. Echols in particular aged with extraordinary grace. The first "Paradise Lost" concluded with his eerie resignation, with the 18-year-old stating that at least people would remember him after his death, if only as "a boogieman." In the second film, he gets a chance to do penance for that creepy denouement, stating that if he was released, he would simply disappear.

But Echols instead developed into the star of the trio, partly because his death sentence made his situation especially dire, but also because of his maturation into a cool-headed and erudite subject in front of the camera. Viewing the first two movies provides the opportunity to watch him emerge from his cocoon and into the public eye, a progression that will probably continue. The disgraced Miskelley, on the other hand, may simply drop off the face of the Earth. Baldwin, who comes across as affable but somewhat camera-shy, seems destined to settle into obscurity.

However, the West Memphis 3 aren't the only characters in this ongoing epic. Few nonfiction personalities have embodied as many tantalizing ambiguities as the irreverent enigma known as John Mark Byers. The stepfather of one of the slain children, Byers comes across as intermittently arrogant, mentally unstable and possibly delusional. The man who initially reported that the boys were missing also looks like a far more likely candidate in the murder case than any of the West Memphis 3, having had a history of beating his stepchild and sharing a knife with the filmmakers that had trace amounts of blood on it. Byers' wife mysteriously died between the first two movies and his explanation for her untimely demise changes as often as a half dozen other Byers stories, none of which add up.

It's unclear whether the man is deplorable or simply out of touch with reality; either way, he's a marvel to watch. Alternately an embodiment of redneck stereotypes and a relentless entertainer set on sopping up attention wherever he goes, Byers was made for the movies. (Atom Egoyan, in his reported feature-length adaptation of the West Memphis 3 story, should look no further than Danny McBride to find his Byers.) Despite Byers' alarming instability, however, he has ironically been subjected to a rush to judgment similar to the one that doomed the West Memphis 3. Byers passed a polygraph tested in which he professed his innocence and his transformation into a supporter of the West Memphis 3 in 2007 will hopefully be among the most compelling aspects of the third movie.

Additionally, Byers has taken on a symbolic dimension, resembling the lingering doubts about the West Memphis 3's fate that have allowed them and their supporters to keep hope alive. He represents the stone constantly left unturned, a palpable hint that nobody knows the real story and more work lies ahead. Now contemplating the rest of their lives, the West Memphis 3 can surely relate to that sentiment.

“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” will be re-aired on HBO Monday August 29 at 5PM and Tuesday August 30 at 5:45, respectively. 

18 Comments

  • sharky | September 8, 2011 5:30 AMReply

    Byers did it, case closed. A demented individual, who knows how to get away with murder. Any psych should be able to see the mentality. Deranged! Also killed his wife. Red neck gutter snipe!

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  • TrueGrit | September 6, 2011 5:21 AMReply

    Not only did Melissa Byers die at a young age so did JMB's girlfriend. The autopsy report on Melissa Byers is interesting in that they determine she was grabbed forcefully from behind prior to death however JMB claims she died in her sleep. It just seems odd thta anyone in JMB's presence dies.

  • JustSaying | September 6, 2011 5:00 AMReply

    I don't know how one could consider that Byers "passed" the polygraph test when just from the answers he gave you know he lied "Have you ever committed any crimes , Been in any kind of trouble with the police?" he answers no?

    Really? What about hitting the neighbors child or giving a knife to another teenager to fight another one? Holding a gun to prevent anyone from stopping that fight? The polygraph tester didn't even ask him about those things?

    I think the real key here is "the truth as he sees it" and he doesn't seem to see things the way the rest of the world does.

    He even slips and says "when my WIFE was murdered"

  • Toni | September 3, 2011 12:38 PMReply

    Thank you for sticking with this story and for showing people what great docs can do in this twisted world. The film makers and HBO rock the doc world.

  • Linda G. | September 2, 2011 12:21 PMReply

    What's with this author and his ludicrous anti-Jessie Misskelley bias?

    *** Within days, three teenagers were quickly snatched up: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., whose inaccurate confession sealed their initial fate. ***

    It was a *false* confession, coerced out of a mentally slow (IQ of 72) teenager whom the police psychologically tortured for hours before finally turning on a tape recorder to capture Jesse's flaw-riddled confession. He was lied to, told her failed a polygraph he never failed, told he would fry in the electric chair, kept away from his parents, had no legal counsel. He was brow-beaten for hours: to call it an "inaccurate" confession doesn't come CLOSE to giving readers an idea of what Jessie was put through before he finally gave them what they wanted.

    *** The disgraced Miskelley, on the other hand, may simply drop off the face of the Earth. ***

    The disgraced Miskelley? What the fuck? Jessie is not a disgraced man. He is loved by WM3 supporters. Damien has said he has no anger towards Jessie because Damien himself saw the tactics police used when they interrogated him, and how terrifying the process was. When Jessie started a Facebook page, he had the limit of 5000 friends within 48 hours -- 5000 supporters telling him how loved he is and how many prayers and well wishes are being sent his way. He is engaged to his high school sweetheart (the "Susie" from the first PL movie) and is living in safety. This is hardly a disgraced man and he's hardly dropping off the face of the Earth.

    If you were truly familiar with all elements of the WM3 case, you wouldn't paint Jessie as some kind of asshole who confessed just for the hell of it and somehow got Damien and Jason convicted. He refused to testify at their trial, despite the fact that he was offered a lesser sentence if he WOULD testify against them. The only disgraceful thing in this is Eric Kohn's biased, snickering interpretation of Jessie's part in this story.

  • Linda | September 2, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    I'm reading the book " Devils Knot" right now concerning the West Memphis 3. The incompetency by the police & the judicial system is incredible & I wish I could say unbelievable but unfortunately I can't. The zeroing in on Damien, especially by the one juvenile officer who had no formal training but felt he was an authority on cults just blows my mind. He was a former pilot and tried to open his own business and failed that and they hired him to be a juvenile probation officer without any formal education in that subject. Did this not even make the prosecuting attorneys stop & think. And police wonder why people won't talk with them without an attorney even when they're innocent. I'm so glad these guys are out now even though it took 18 years to do the right thing. Shame on the attorneys for trying to cover their asses with an Alford plea. Now let's find the real killer!!

  • Michael | September 1, 2011 5:01 AMReply

    I watched PL1 and the next day started watching PL2, but it was so boring that I fell asleep. It seemed like all they were doing in PL2 was talking about the WM3 org people. Yawn. If PL3 is anything like the last one. zzzzzzz.

  • Adam | August 31, 2011 6:24 AMReply

    After watching the Documentary and reading up on WM3, I can say I am glad they are out and anyone with common sense can see all the travesties done in this case. Its ashame they had to plead guilty while maintaining thier innocence that is a sign of elected officials trying to get re-elected instead of doing what is right.

    Good Luck WM3!! You should all be well compensated for the Grief and misery of the past 18 years!!

  • sheyla hershey | August 31, 2011 5:48 AMReply

    I been watching these 2 movies, and the only conclusion that came out for me was if those 3 boys didn't kill those little children who did?
    The big question is; they focused so much that those 3 boys killed those kids back on 93 that they didn't really searched who really committed this horrible crime, now is a little bit to late to tell who did, those kids already had spend 18 years I'm prison, they suffered so much. And now the justice go and let them free? Why took 18 years for them realized that those kids didn't do it? While they're suffering in prison, the real killer was out here enjoying and laughing at the poor justice that we have over here in this country' those boys wast part of they life in prison for something that the justice thought they did.
    Boy if was with me I would make everything on my power to make each one of this people suffer as much they did in prison..

    I think this case will never know the true!
    Plus the mom was murder for know to much"
    Poor Melissa..
    This mr Byers is a show off, he think he's famous but all what I think is he's a show off..

    I'm a celebrity myself. I'm an actress I did a lot of documentary and no one make anybody to say things, you say what you want to tell. And Byers he told what he thought was right, now don't blame in HBO sucker..

    I hope he pay for what he did.

    Kisses and love.

    Sheyla hershey.

  • G. B. | August 31, 2011 5:08 AMReply

    I just had to leave a comment regarding "Sheyla hershey" who writes "I"m a celebrity myself"

    Really?

    Mind boggling what clueless idiots write stuff here. Please, Sheyla, learn what the word "celebrity" means. Appearing on the audictions of Last comic standing does no make one a celebrity.

  • Hemi Halliwell | August 31, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    I am so glad the WM3 were released. And to commenter #5 "Common Sense"- I did notice Byers say his wife was murdered in PL2. This whole case is so awful and so many mistakes have been done that I don't think we will ever know the truth.
    The worse part is this: If the WM3 did not kill those children (I do NOT believe they did), then the killer is still out there. What if they decide to "strike again"? Media outlets would probably say "The WM3 did it because it has happened again, right after they were released".
    The WM3 should be compensated in some way because even if they blend into society, most likely, they will never have normal lives. If they apply for a job or a loan or anything, this case will always pop up and make people suspicious of them.

  • haha | August 31, 2011 3:01 AMReply

    look up Sheyla Hershey on google. lol. so funny.

    ps. she claims to be a celebrity

  • common sense | August 31, 2011 2:09 AMReply

    Too many holes in Mark Byers' story. Also, did anyone else hear him say his wife was murdered in the second film? The nonsense continues when he tells 3 seperate stories regarding his teeth and 'when they were pulled'. After he said his teeth were pulled before the murders took place, the records showed they were pulled 'four' years after the murders in 1997. Then, the blood on the knife that Byers gave HBO as a souvenir that was eventually marked as new evidence in this case had suddenly disappeared from the evidence room which made the defense unable to analyze the one piece of evidence that 'could' exonerate the WM3 (can anyone say cover-up or corruption?). And just when you think the WM3 have enough to win their appeal, a witness steps forward and says to a news reporter, "Byers was running with a knife at the scene of the crime at the time in question too!"...these are the facts. There's way too many holes to ignore. This isn't profiling...this man, Byers, inadvertantly implicated himself on several occasions on air. But yet I still read from Byers' sympethizers that anyone who thinks he's guilty is just profiling him as were the WM3? How ridiculous, these are facts, not speculation. My personal opinion (which we all are entitled to) is Byers is guilty for something, as to what- I can't say exactly, but guilty as sin, I say! There's just too many inconsistencies- in fact, I'd go as far as to say that anyone who believes otherwise is either partial to courtroom technicalities or way too contrary 'just' for the sake of being contrary. I have a good feeling part 3 will uncover some shocking and unexpecting truths.

  • jacki | August 31, 2011 1:03 AMReply

    all those drugs byers was on in part 2 why was he given a poligraph ? haldol,depakote are all phycopathic meds .he could have walked through fire & not known any thing.the thing that gets me is how he was able to stay awake through the questions.i know poilgraphs are not admissable evidence, but come on he knows more than what he says.why is his wifes death still undetermined? why they didnt exume her body is beyond me.i realize that people who have never been to the south or lived there must think byers reprsents all southerners, but you dont know how wrong they were. southern people are the best ,kind friendly,and most would give tou the shirt off their backs,pants,shoes if you needed them.hang in there west memphis!!!!! our justice system is very strange .innocent people are covicted all the time,and it is usually the poor who are victims.look at the ramseys jon benet,calee anthony etc .good luck to the memphis 3.it took a long time but now u know how strong u all are!!!!!i hope your lives can get 2 b normal!!!!!!

  • Jeff Jackson | August 30, 2011 12:48 PMReply

    Hey Eric, thanks for the article. Good stuff. I'll have to rewatch the first two Paradise films. Looking forward to the third one. It's interesting that the Memphis Three seem to have been released based on a seldom utilized law? And, obviously the judge who released them must have been affected by the Paradise docs? I hope that issue get covered in part three. Otherwise, I'd be interested in hearing what you know about more details around their release. 'Paradise' along with "The Thin Blue Line" are interesting docs due to their affecting the actual subjects who apparently unjustly incarcerated.

    I spent five years making a documentary entitled, DEATH & TAXES which looked at the life of a North Dakota farmer, Gordon Kahl and his struggles with the IRS & the federal govt.. A lot of controversy and rigged federal judicial system which still has his son Yorie incarcerated since 1983. My film showed a lot of questionable federal actions, yet hasn't had the profound effect which "Paradise" and "Thin Blue Line".

  • WM3/FREE | August 30, 2011 6:05 AMReply

    So the evil HBO filmmakers forced poor Mark Byers to do and say all that stuff in the second PL film against his will? How did they do that? It doesn't make sense that Mark would agree to participate in the upcoming 3rd film in the series if that's how he felt about it.
    Why not just look at this from the POV of someone trying to document the things that happened around this case? Mr. Byers is a part of it - that is how he chose to portray himself before the cameras at the time. Those things he did and said were said and done in his own voice. Nobody put a script in his hand or a gun to his head. There was no CGI enhancement or motion capture. Those things he said and did were his own creations - and a product of the moment; the pressures and environment he was dealing with at the time. His "character" is a part of why this case has been so compelling. The way he conducted himself back then (he's a decidedly different man now) is one of the reasons why there's always been so much confusion about "Whodunnit." You have people yammering about devil worshippers and human sacrifice, and throwing 3 teenagers in prison... You have an enigmatic teenager who changed his name to Damien and talks about Wicca... and then you have a guy burning effigies and stomping on imaginary graves on the site where his stepson's body was found.... Do you expect documentary filmmakers to NOT film such things out of fear that someone like you will think it was all fabricated?
    Byers himself now admits that (like Damien in the first film) he wasn't doing himself any favors with his behavior back then. The HBO filmmakers didn't script Damien's "West Memphis Boogyman" comments, either or any of the other scenes showing him to be what some people might consider a "weirdo" or "evil." When you use terms like "cinematic slight (sic) of hand" it makes me think you imagine the viewing public is ignorant about how documentaries are made. OF COURSE Mark Byers was playing to the cameras. OF COURSE he was doing an exaggerated performance. No rational person would think he goes out into the woods with lighter fluid to burn effigies every day - or that he shoots pumpkins or curses everyone to hell on a regular basis, or any of the very obvious performances he did for the films. It's all part of what was happening back then, though... Mark was dealing with his situation in his own way, and his exaggerated, dramatic performances are a part of the story. Even Mark himself isn't surprised that people thought he was "crazy" back then. His behavior in front of the cameras is an example of the kind of hysterical drama that spun everyone in that area into such a hurricane of rumor and satanic cult obsession that it resulted in one of the most epic witch hunt cases in recent history.
    Calling Mark Byers "guilty" because of that is just like calling Damien "guilty" because of his behavior. But the facts around this case were clouded by exactly that kind of behavior. It was these kinds of "performances" that made decisions about guilt and innocence so difficult for the uninformed observer - or grieving parent or juror for that matter. You seem to be talking to that relatively small, unsophisticated group of documentary viewers who watch them without considering any of this. By their nature, all docs will have a camera and crew in the room with the subjects. That's mostly unavoidable. These things cause changes in what it being observed. Savvy viewers know this, and once you know how it works you can watch them with a lot more insight. The way the presence of the camera affects the subject is a part of reality, too.

  • Greg Day | August 30, 2011 1:05 AMReply

    This a curious commentary on John Mark Byers by people who are obviously digesting the Berlinger/Sinofsky version of Byers, seemingly without considering the possible cinematic slight of hand used to mold him into the "irreverent enigma" described here. You guys should know better; aren't you, like, film critics or something? Oh, and speaking of "ironic rushes to judgement", I wonder how Joe and Bruse will portray Terry Hobbs, you know, the only person whose DNA is linked to the crime scene? He's less colorful than Byers, though, and isn't that what counts? He'll figure prominently in PL3 as well.

    Stay tuned boys and girls.

    www.johnmarkbyers.com