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Critic’s Notebook | How the West Memphis 3 Release Transformed The “Paradise Lost” Documentaries

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. 

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