Northern Westchester Director Joe Berlinger Frees the West Memphis Three

Last week in this blog, we looked at the HBO documentary There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane and wondered whether or not a film like that could have any effect, either on an audience or on those appearing in it. What Joe Berlinger, a Chappaqua native and now Northern Westchester resident, proves is that, yes, an HBO documentary can have a tremendous impact.

In 1996, Berlinger (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing for Crude, his film about Chevron’s destruction of Ecuador) and co-filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky released a documentary to the cable channel called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, about three teenagers known as the West Memphis Three: Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Damien Wayne Echols, and Jason Baldwin. The Three were convicted of murdering three second-graders. Echols was given the death penalty.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is unique among courtroom documentaries in that the filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, seem to have had complete access to both sides of the trial process, including private family meetings, conferences with lawyers, even sessions in the judge’s chambers,” Roger Ebert wrote at the time. What Berlinger and Sinofsky’s footage reveals, though, is that the case was flawed. Much of it hinged on a confession made by Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72, after a 12-hour interrogation. There was no real physical evidence linking them to the crime. Witnesses called for the prosecution were unreliable, to say the least.

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Why was the prosecution so eager to convict, then? The documentary asserts it’s because the Three were the kinds of teenagers who wore black and listened to heavy metal music. (Echols also was interested in Wicca.) This got them labeled as Satanists, and the murders were painted as some kind of cult ritual. (One of the unreliable witnesses? A “state’s expert occultist” who turns out to have his degrees from a mail-order university that did not require any classes or schoolwork,” Ebert writes.)

Obviously, this was an injustice. And Berlinger and Sinofsky were able to bring it to light, which started a groundswell of support for the West Memphis Three. The two filmmakers stayed on the case, releasing Paradise Lost 2: Revelations to HBO in 2000. The second documentary focused on the appeals process, as well as John Mark Byers, a stepfather of one of the victims, who engages in some suspicious behavior. (In the first film, Byers gave the filmmakers a knife that they had to turn over to the state because it had blood on it. In the second film, it’s revealed that Byers had all of his teeth removed; some of the victims had bite marks on them.) Still, the film ends with a judge—the same one from the original trial—turning down an appeal from the West Memphis Three.

But that didn’t stop the support ignited by the documentaries. Those working on behalf of the Three grew to include celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and the Dixie Chicks. New forensic testing was ordered, and couldn’t link any of the Three to the crime scene. Finally, earlier this month, the West Memphis Three were allowed to walk free.

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect exoneration. “Under the seemingly contradictory deal,” the New York Times writes, “Judge David Laser vacated the previous convictions, including the capital murder convictions for Mr. Echols and Mr. Baldwin. After doing so, he ordered a new trial, something the prosecutors agreed to if the men would enter so-called Alford guilty pleas. These pleas allow people to maintain their innocence and admit frankly that they are pleading guilty because they consider it in their best interest.” Echols admitted that, while he would have preferred to prove his innocence, they agreed to the plea to get him off Death Row as quickly as possible.

“Obviously the families of the accused men or the convicted men are thrilled that this legal nightmare have come to an end, but they, like us, are dumbfounded that the state of Arkansas didn’t have the courage to fully exonerate these people,” Berlinger told the Today show. “Two of the three families of the victims believe that the West Memphis Three were innocent and therefore, what the state of Arkansas is basically telling them is that, ‘We’re not going to go find the real killer.’ I think there’s joy and there’s confusion and, you know, it’s bittersweet.”

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And the fact still remains that the three teenagers lost 18 years of their lives in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, and it seems to me that they didn’t get so much as an apology. We’ve seen in cases closer to home, like the case of Jeffrey Deskovic, who also was imprisoned as a teenager and released based on DNA evidence, that adjusting to life outside of incarceration after spending so much of your formative years in jail can be very, very hard.

Then again, that’s what Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory can be for. Berlinger and Sinofsky plan to release that on HBO in January. See a clip below.

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