The Paradise Lost Trilogy
I may be really late to the game on this one, but I hadn't even heard of Paradise Lost until very recently. And then a week ago I watched Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory on HBO, which sparked me to immediately purchase the first two on Amazon. I've pretty much been completely consumed with the films for the past week.
If you've never heard of these films, they are documentaries that cover the arrest, trial, incarceration, and eventual release of a few kids from Arkansas known as the West Memphis Three. The three teens; Damien Echols (18), Jesse Misskelley (17), and Jason Baldwin (16) were all arrested in 1993 for the grisly murders of three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found in a wooded area near a truck stop.
West Memphis, Arkansas is a highly religious town, and immediately the crimes were unjustly and ignorantly labeled as Satanic sacrifices. Damien, a harmless if maybe misguided teen, wore all black clothing, listened to heavy metal music, and dabbled in the Wiccan religion, causing the entire town to label him as a satanic outcast. Meanwhile, Jesse, who has an IQ of 72 (considered legally handicapped), is an acquaintance of Damien and gets confused by a 14-hour police interrogation, resulting in a false confession of the crimes. The police had basically tricked a mentally handicapped person into confessing that he, Damien and Jason (Damien's best friend) had murdered the boys at Robin Hood Hills (the wooded area).
Then came the trial. This trial was a complete mockery of the concept of justice. Instead of presenting any form of actual evidence linking the teens to the scene of the crime, the prosecution simply pulled off an all out character assault on Damien. They used the fact that he knew who Alistair Crowley was, just the fact that he had heard of him, as part of their case against him. Lots of stuff like that. The fact that he reads Stephen King and listens to Metallica are among reasons for guilt. The closing statement of the prosecution said something like "Is there anything wrong with liking a few of those things? No. But all of them? Just think about it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury... Just think about it..." Damien says in the documentary "West Memphis is like the new Salem, they will burn anyone who appears different to their beliefs." The only thing even resembling something close to a real case against the boys were three testimonies from some other teenagers, who said that Damien and Jason had straight up told them that they did it. These testimonies, as you find out years later, were completely fabricated...
Damien received the death penalty. Jason and Jesse got life in prison. No evidence was presented during the trail that actually, definitively linked them to the murders. They claimed innocence during their entire stay in prison. And 18 years after they were arrested, new DNA evidence definitively proved that they were *not* guilty of the crimes. They were set free last year.
And that's the insanity of the entire case in a brief nutshell. The documentaries did nothing short of completely infuriating me. Everything about it *should* make you angry. The judge was constantly denying the three the chance to introduce new evidence, for almost 20 years. He denied bite mark evidence that would have negated the teens from guilt earlier on in the timeline. He even denied them the chance to introduce the new DNA evidence that eventually set them free, for seemingly no reason! The defense team had to take it to the Supreme Court to introduce the definitive evidence. It's ridiculous! How does that judge still have a job?? He did nothing but screw over these kids for 20 years of their life, by allowing the shenanigans of this case to take place. He's the definition of unfair incompetence.
There was jury tampering as well. Apparently a jury member was given Jesse's false confession as evidence in Damien and Jason's trial by one of the prosecutors, even though it wasn't allowed to be used as evidence, because Jesse had been tried separately and refused to testify against the other two in their trial. There was also no blood at the crime scene, indicating that the children had been murdered elsewhere and moved to Robin Hood Hills after their death, which would destroy the defenses entire case about how the West Memphis Three murdered the boys on site. It's all the most basic information given right to the jury, or more so, the jury had been presented NO information that could actually link these teens to the murders, yet they acted out of complete ignorant prejudice and sent these innocent guys away to rot in prison. You feel terrible for these parents that lost their children, genuinely awful for them, but it doesn't take long for them to start spitting out ignorant hate based off misinformation. I've never been in their shoes (and hope to never be), but the whole town seemed to just be stuck in a fog of naive hatred. I guess it made everyone feel better about the situation. ...oh, except for the West Memphis Three and their families...
I can't tell if this all went down because of blind religious ignorance, or simply the fact that everyone involved were dumb, backwater southern folk of low intelligence. It all just felt like the trial in Idiocracy when Luke Wilson gets sent to prison for "talking funny".
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is probably the most well rounded of the three films (and as I said earlier, the one I watched first). It's the only one that has a clear-cut beginning and end. I actually went into watching it without really knowing much about the subject, and Paradise Lost 3 fills you in on all of the important information you may have missed in the first two. In fact, maybe the first 30-40 minutes of Purgatory is a slick recap of the first two films. If I had to recommend anything from this series of documentaries, I would say to most definitely watch the third Paradise Lost film. It's amazing.
After watching the third one, and going back to the first two, the first one is incredibly interesting because it gives you an extended take on the whole trial process. You get to see Damien's testimony, and also get to see everyone else basically lie and smooth talk their way to a guilty verdict. It's like being an invisible force watching the trail take place, and you want to scream at everyone for falling for all this BS, but no one can hear you. It's really frustrating, haha. The second film provides some more information and a close look at some of the other town folk, but I don’t know if I learned much more than I did in the third one. The second film seemed like a two hour, really meaty DVD supplement.
But again, I really recommend Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory to everyone who is interested by documentaries about crimes or the American justice system (though, I warn the squeamish; plenty of footage from the actual crime scene, which is very disturbing). This whole series has to go down as one of the greatest landmarks in documentary history. It serves as education, entertainment, and inspiration and hope for some kind of real life change. It's a lesson that this kind of thing shouldn't happen again.
Did they ever find out who actually did it?
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No they didn't... The documentaries lean towards some other possible suspects. Mainly one of the stepfathers (Terry Hobbs), who apparently had a false alibi, a motive, and a history of violence. But he was never investigated at the time, so he wasn't arrested.
BUT, there's an even worse part about the conclusion of this entire case that I didn't mention before. In order to get out of prison, the three guys had to admit to guilt in front of an Arkansas judge as part of their deal... There was no evidence against them (there never was), and DNA results had completely eliminated their possibility of guilt. But Arkansas had them say they were guilty moments before they were set free. The West Memphis Three were NOT very happy about this, but they did it because they were going to kill Damien from lethal injection if they didn't.
So the three admitted they were guilty even though they weren't, they got out of prison, and the case is now technically closed. Without ever finding the real killer... Justice done right...! :/
I was just poking around and saw this thread.
You might have already seen it, but a very different doc with a very similar story is Errol Morris' masterpiece The Thin Blue Line. If you haven't, do yourself a favor and see it without reading about it. Be as unaware as possible.
The story about how TTBL came to be is as fascinating as the movie itself. Morris worked as a private investigator before becoming a director, and he really put his detecting skills to work on this. It's a mesmerizing film, I've seen it time and time again and always find something new to admire.