The Paradise Lost Documentaries

I first heard about the West Memphis 3 back in 2000 when I read an article about the making of the upcoming Blair Witch 2 movie. Joe Berlinger the director of that movie had talked about the West Memphis 3 in the interview that came along with the article and the two documentaries that he & Bruce Sinofsky had made on the triple murder in Arkansas. I knew that some of the rock & metal community were supporting the cause for the release and/or retrial of the 3 young men accused in that case. Over the years since I kept hearing about the WM3 on several occasion and finally got down to watching the 3 documentaries that were made on them and the murders that they were accused off and that lead them to prison.

1996’s Paradise Lost : The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills was the first documentary that Sinofsky & Berlinger directed about the trials three then teenage boys who came to be known as the West Memphis Three in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were accused of the murder and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys in 1993. The boys on trial for the crime were Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. Damien (then 18 ) was close friends with Jason (16) and they both knew Jessie (17) but were not close with him. They were accused of killing 3 8 years olds – Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch – whose bodies were found in a ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis called Robin Hood Hills.

In the movie several people connected with the case, including the families of the victims and the accused and also members of the police, prosecution and various experts who gave testimonies in the case. They murders were said to be Satanic in nature as part of an occult ritual to Satan. Damien was someone who was interested in Wicca and had read/owned books on the occult. Jessie was his best friend. They liked to wear mostly black clothes and liked Metallica. The community is shown to be high politically conservative and of mostly Evangelical Christians. Jessie was the first one questioned and he was interrogated by the cops for over 10 hours but only the last 2 were recorded. In the recordings a seemingly coerced Jessie (which is highly suggested in the documentary) confesses to the cops that Damien & Jason had caught & killed the 3 boys. Jessie was with them and says that he had chased and brought back one of the boys who had tried to run away and left them with Jessie & Damien. His confession was inconsistent and he had the time incorrect (he says during the day when the boys were still in school). Jessie has an IQ of 72 and seems a rather simple minded person. He is tried separately and sentenced to life plus 2 terms of 20 years each. Damien is sentenced to death by lethal injection while Jason gets life.

5 years after the 1994 trials, the documentary team revisits Damien who is ppealing his sentence and his defense attorney notices what he believes to be bite marks in a photograph of the face of one of the victims; the prosecution argues that the marks are from a belt buckle and not teeth. Several support groups have been formed in favour of the WM3 and 3 from the Los Angeles film industry are also featured quite heavily in Paradise Lost 2 : Revelations. During the trials in 1994 John Mark Byers, step father of one of the 3 victims Mark, gives the filmmakers a knife which has blood in the hinge. The filmmakers turn the knife over to police, who examine it; the DNA is similar to that of himself and the boy but the evidence is nonetheless inconclusive since the DNA evidence produced was fragmented and can not provide concrete links.

Byers is heavily featured in the documentaries as a camera hogger and hamming it up with his bible quoting, fire, brimstone & hell threats to the WM3. Visiting his wife’s grave he goes into an over dramatic lament and later curses Damien. The WM3 are tested and do not match the alleged “bite marks” on the victim. The support groups for Echols want Byers to have his bitemark compared to the one on the photo, but Byers has had false teeth since four years after his son’s murder. He later provides copies of his dental records to the defense but they don’t match the bites either. Byers later takes & passes a polygraph to prove his innocence but is on several medications that could affect the results. When informed that he has passed the test Byers once again hams it up for the camera.

Released in 2011 Paradise Lost 3 : Purgatory revisits the WM3 now older men. The biggest change is in Jessie who has shaved his head bald and looks quite different. The previous two documentaries have contributed to creating awareness, publicity and support for the WM3. Damien’s defense has hired some of the most renowned forensic scientists to collect DNA and other evidence that had never been tested during the 1994 trials in hopes of getting a new trial.  One important fact is the allegations of jury misconduct with the jury foreman discussing the case with any attorney during the Echols-Baldwin trial and bringing Misskelley’s confession into deliberations even though it was not let into evidence.

Forensic experts also uncover DNA and witnesses draw suspicion from Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murder victims. A neighbour of Hobbs says she say Hobbs with the boys in the evening of their murders, while he said that he never saw them that day. A hair found in the ligature that bound one of the victims is a match to him, he has told several conflicting stories about his whereabouts during the time of the murders, and he has a history of violence against his wife and possibly his stepson. His alibi also didn’t pan out; he says he was at a friend’s house all day but the friends says that he left a couple of times in between. While many are convinced he should be considered a suspect, the West Memphis, Arkansas Police Department has only questioned him and to this day does not consider him a suspect.

Mr. Byers has changed over a new leaf, says he is now convinced that the WM3 didn’t kill the 3 boys and becomes a big supporter of Damien, Jason & Jessie. He now sets his sights on Hobbs and demands a new trial. n 2007, Pamela Hobbs, the mother of victim Stevie Branch, joined those who have publicly questioned the verdicts, calling for a reopening of the verdicts and further investigation of the evidence. Appeals for a new trial based on new evidence are rejected but in Nov 2010 the Akansas Supreme Court granted an evidentary hearing scheduled for December, 2011, to decide if the evidence is enough for a new trial. This is seen as new hope for the WM3 and their supporters. However, in August, 2011, four months before the hearing is to take place, the prosecutors and defense lawyers talked over a plea deal that would allow the three men to walk out of prison, on the condition that they plead guilty but can maintain their innocence. They reluctantly accept the deal, after 18 years and 78 days, they walk free from prison.

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