“Shame on Arkansas for not exonerating these guys. Or, even shame on Arkansas if they really think they’re guilty for letting child killers out of jail. Or, shame on Arkansas for not going out and finding the person or persons who committed this crime.”
This was the blunt assessment of Bruce Sinofsky at the New York Film Festival this week, commenting on the compromise plea that allowed the West Memphis 3 to be freed after two decades behind bars. Their controversial conviction in the mid-’90s spawned three movies and a cause célèbre by the likes of Metallica, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chick’s Natalie Maines.
In 1993, the nude bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found in a muddy creek in a wooded area in West Memphis, Arkansas. A month after the murders, a frenzied community and desperate local police arrested three teens — Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley — and accused them of mutilating, raping and killing the boys in a crime fraught with devil worship and cult ritual.
In 1996, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky debuted the first installment in a trio of films at Sundance, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” which won best doc by the National Board of Review that year. In 2000 the filmmaking duo made “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” which sparked debate nationwide about the West Memphis 3’s innocence.
Their latest film, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” was originally intended as an update on their condition. Just weeks before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, a break in the case freed the men after new DNA evidence pointed to a reasonable argument of innocence.
Apparently eager to avoid an expensive new trial that could exonerate them (which could lead to lawsuits for wrongful incarceration after the original trial, which is widely believed to have been tainted with jury tampering) Arkansas came up with a solution. On August 19, the three entered an Alford plea during an evidentiary hearing that could have resulted in a new trial. The legal maneuver allows the three to maintain their innocence, but accept that the state has enough evidence to convict them. After the pleas, the three were sentenced to time served and released.
Because of the short window of time from their release to the Toronto premiere, the film screened in Canada in its original form. This Monday, Berlinger and Sinofsky will again have a world premiere for their HBO doc at the New York Film Festival complete with the new ending, with the West Memphis 3 out from behind bars for the first time.
At a press screening this week, Berlinger and Sinofsky appeared to acknowledge what many have said since the films started rolling out in the ’90s: The “Paradise Lost” series freed the WM3 and even saved the life of Damien Echols who had sat in Arkansas’ Death Row for two decades.
“I’m amazed by the tens of thousands of people who joined this cause,” Berlinger said at Lincoln Center earlier this week. “For every Eddie Vedder, there were thousands of other regular people who joined this movement.”
Berlinger went on to condemn the death penalty in the U.S. and said that a “lethal brew” of hysteria lead to the wrongful conviction of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.
“This is a community that literally believes in heaven and hell and that there are devils who walk among them,” he said. “They also believe and trust their officials and they were swept up by a media that whipped them into a Satanic paranoia.”
Berlinger was quick to say that he was not criticizing Christian fundamentalism for stirring the hysteria that lead to the WM3’s convictions. However, audience members clearly were not having it, with one person audibly upset and accusing religion of playing a clear role in delivering injustice.
While continuing to distance himself from commenting on religion directly, Berlinger did acknowledge that “If this crime had taken place in New York or Los Angeles, they wouldn’t have just gone and find the local weirdo like Damien and accuse convict him because religious fervor suspended their rationality.”
Berlinger added, “It’s a sad comment on society that it takes three films and a parade of wealthy celebrities to get wrongfully imprisoned people freed. I’m not sure I could have lived 18 years on death row and still have the civility that Damien Echols has.”
On October 10, the West Memphis 3 will make their first public appearance at the New York Film Festival’s world premiere of the updated version of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”
The HBO Documentary production will debut on the network in 2012.
Check out indieWIRE’s review of the film here.