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Jessie Misskelley Jr, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations Jessie Misskelley Jr, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
AMERICAN CINEMA IS SO RIFE WITH STORIES OF THE WRONGLY ACCUSED YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN FOR THINKING THE UNITED STATES SPECIALISES IN EPIC MISCARRIAGES OF JUSTICE. OR PERHAPS THE OPENNESS OF AMERICAN SOCIETY SIMPLY LENDS ITSELF TO THE EXPOSURE AND DRAMATISATION OF LEGAL ERRORS.

The recently completed documentary trilogy Paradise Lost, detailing the story of the West Memphis Three, certainly features some extraordinary access to courtrooms, but the result is a far from reassuring portrait of American justice.

Director Joe Berlinger unveiled the final part of the Paradise Lost trilogy in March at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), leaving viewers with more questions than answers about this nightmarish case.

Berlinger recalls that when he and his filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky began shooting the first Paradise Lost film for HBO—The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)—they thought they were documenting “an open and shut case.” The police claimed they had strong evidence implicating three local teenagers in a particularly horrific triple homicide in West Memphis, revealed when the mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found naked and hogtied beside a creek on May 6, 1993. Seventeen-year-old Jessie Misskelley Jr, 16-year-old Jason Baldwin and 18-year-old Damien Echols were quickly arrested and charged with the murders. Misskelly confessed to police about his involvement in the crime and implicated the other two.

It quickly became apparent to the filmmakers, however, that there was no physical evidence linking the teenagers to the murders. Jessie Misskelley Jr, who had an IQ of just 72, had been interrogated by police for 12 hours before making his confession. Only 46 minutes of the interview had been recorded. Despite the fact that Misskelley quickly recanted his statement, arguments in court that the confession was false and extracted under coercion were dismissed by the jury, and he was sentenced to life in prison.

In the separate trial of Echols and Baldwin, the prosecution argued the boys were members of a satanic cult and the murders part of a bloody ritual. The teenagers’ love of Metallica and Stephen King was introduced as “evidence” to support these claims. Each was found guilty on three counts of murder, and Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment. Echols was sentenced to death.

Amazingly, Berlinger and Sinofsky were permitted to film both trials, an experience Berlinger describes as “jaw-dropping.” Their lenses captured the flimsy prosecution case and the inept, scattershot approach of the boys’ defence lawyers. They also revealed the impassioned hatred felt by the parents of the murdered boys and the rumours of Satan worship that swirled around Memphis in the wake of the murders.

Half a decade later, Berlinger and Sinofsky returned to the case to make a second film entitled Revelations (2000). The first documentary engendered a storm of controversy about the trial proceedings and dubious nature of the prosecution’s case, but the second film revealed little conclusive new information about the murders and subsequent trials. The filmmakers were also denied access to courtrooms during various fruitless appeals. Instead, Berlinger and Sinofsky spent a lot of time with John Mark Byers, father of one of the victims; his deranged religious zealotry makes Robert Mitchum’s character in The Night of the Hunter look restrained.

Questions had already been raised about Byers in the first documentary after he bizarrely gave the film crew a knife as a present, which was later found to hold traces of human blood that matched the type of both Byers and his dead son. By the time of the second film, Byers’ wife had also died in mysterious circumstances. Various theories developed in Revelations imply Byers may have played a part in the murders, but at the end of the film a lie detector test suggests that he believes he is telling the truth when he denies any involvement. On the other hand, at the time of the test he was taking a cocktail of five mood-altering drugs, which may have skewed the result somewhat.

The recently completed third part of the trilogy, Purgatory (2011), avoids the sensationalist tone of the second instalment and traces developments that led to the release of the West Memphis Three in August 2011. The biggest shock is seeing the effect of time on the accused. Misskelley, a slight teenage boy in 1993, is now an overweight middle-aged man. Echols and Baldwin are in better shape, but they are similarly on the edge of middle-age and as the film opens, all three have spent more of their lives behind bars than living free.

The decisive development traced by Purgatory is the analysis of DNA from the crime scene, utilising technology not available at the time of the original trials. Tests find that none of the DNA material from the scene can be linked to the accused. Intriguingly, the tests do show that a hair on a shoelace used to tie up the victims may have belonged to the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.

After various protracted legal machinations the state offers the West Memphis Three a deal that will see them released, based on the time they have already served. The trio agree rather than endure a protracted retrial. In this sense the final part of Paradise Lost provides something of a resolution, but many questions are left hanging, not least the riddle of who really murdered the eight-year-old boys. The films suggest many possibilities, but in the end all the leads only serve to demonstrate just how slippery the notion of truth really is, whether it’s on screen or in the courtroom. Errol Morris’ celebrated The Thin Blue Line (1988) similarly showed up the mutability of supposedly factual evidence, but where Morris’ film basically detailed two conflicting versions of the same crime, the only certainty left by the end of Paradise Lost is the fact of the original murder. Director Joe Berlinger admitted at the ACMI screenings, for example, that much of the evidence presented in the second film implicating John Mark Byers has since been discounted, providing a sobering lesson in the power of cinema to lead viewers to conclusions that aren’t necessarily correct.

Most horrifyingly, however, the Paradise Lost films dramatise how three teenage lives were ruined based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. Were it not for new DNA technology, one of the trio would almost certainly have been executed. Watching the legal saga play out over two decades and across three films, the entire process of ‘justice’ ends up looking almost as monstrous as the original crime.


Paradise Lost 1: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Paradise Lost 2: Revelations; Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory; directors and producers Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky; 1996, 2000, 2011; HBO; USA; screened at ACMI, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, March 1-4

RealTime issue #109 June-July 2012 pg. 14

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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