In 1993 acclaimed director Joe Berlinger arrived in West Memphis, Arkansas, a community still in shock after three eight-year-old boys disappeared, then were found dead in a nearby ravine. Facing a public that was both enraged and afraid, police scrambled to make an arrest. Soon three local teens—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley—found themselves in court, accused of the murders.
With no physical evidence linking the teens to the crime, prosecutors pointed to their black clothing and interest in heavy metal music, indications, they said, that the teens had formed a devil-worshipping cult and, inspired by the full moon, murdered the boys as a sacrifice to evil spirits.
Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky captured the teens' trials and subsequent convictions on film. In 1996 they released Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, followed in 2000 by Paradise Lost: Revelations, sparking a wave of outrage and legal challenges that pushed the court to make a stunning about-face. In August 2011, using an Alford plea—in which the young men affirmed their innocence but pled guilty—the state of Arkansas let the West Memphis Three walk free, after 17 years behind bars.
Berlinger's final film in the series, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, premieres this month on HBO, tracing the stunning developments that led to the release of the West Memphis Three. Purgatory has been shortlisted for this year's Oscar for Best Documentary. The film is more than the best movie of the year: it is also the most important, a legal thriller with enthralling characters and astonishing twists that explores a real-life tragedy and provides an unblinking look at a justice system that can both wreck lives and save them.
On a personal level, Purgatory marks Berlinger's transformation from neutral journalist to impassioned advocate. On screen his rapport with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley shines through. On his website, he urges visitors to sign a petition asking the governor of Arkansas to pardon the three men. And in conversation, asked a single question—how he first heard about the case—Berlinger spoke with passion for half an hour about the West Memphis Three and what their fight for freedom has meant to him.
Berlinger: One of the great ironies of this three-film, two-decade mission is that we thought we were making a film about bad children, the inside story of why kids kill. Sheila Nevins, [president of HBO Documentary Films], sent us a press clipping from the New York Times about three devil-worshipping teens who had sacrificed children. The local press was reporting the story the same way. The Commercial Appeal, the predominant newspaper in West Memphis, ran a front-page story that made Damien, Jason and Jessie look obviously guilty. High school dropouts. Black clothing. Talk of the devil. A confession to murder. We all agreed: this would make a great film, a real-life River's Edge. This was right after the murder of Jamie Bulger in England, a two-year-old boy lured onto the railroad tracks and beaten to death by two 10-year-old boys. In this country, there was a real witchcraft panic going on, news coverage of how devil-worshipping cults were preying on children, although the FBI now says that not a single child was ever killed in the name of the devil.
We thought, let's take a look at this phenomenon. Let's go to Arkansas.
We got to West Memphis very early, long before the trial. So we embedded ourselves in the community for seven or eight months. The first months we spent with the victims' families, which made us even more convinced that the kids were guilty. Then we negotiated access to meet them in prison. And everything we'd heard about them ... it just didn't feel right. All these red flags were popping up for me. Jason Baldwin came across as a very nice, very normal kid. The prosecution's theory was that he wielded this massive survival knife. But his arms were so scrawny, and he was so shy. I just couldn't picture it.
Then we learn: there was no blood found at the crime scene. You're telling me that three unprofessional killers are going to take three kids—kids writhing around, trying to escape—kill them in a ravine with a big knife, and there's not going to be any blood? It just wasn't plausible.
One and one was not adding up to two. When we realized the prosecution was off, that the kids were innocent, our mindset changed. Now we thought we were doing a story about kids wrongfully charged with murder and how the court would acquit them and set things right. ... Looking back now, I think we were all incredibly naive to think that somehow it would all work itself out.
Meanwhile the storm of anger and misinformation that was brewing in that community, it was jaw-dropping to behold. Church leaders and the local press fanning the flames of this devil-worshipping story. The Commercial Appeal printed Jessie's confession. Not the complete confession—with all the errors in it, with the police pushing him to change the details four or five times until they fit the facts—only the final version, after it was all cleaned up. As if what they printed just spilled out of his mouth.
You know, some have criticized us for including the gruesome crime scene footage that's at the beginning of the film. We did that not to exploit, not to shock, but to show how a community could be scared to death, to show why they wanted to believe so badly that the killers had been caught, that the threat was over. The police had stepped forward to address the question of how sure they were that they had caught the real killers, saying on a scale from 1 to 10, this was an 11. In church, the locals pastors were speaking out against the three teens. This is a highly religious part of the world, a community where pastors are authority figures—where people believe that angels and demons walk among us—and the community had no reason to doubt them.
Damien's demeanor didn't make it easier. He was into Wicca and horror movies, an alienated youth who wore all black. He listened to heavy metal music. He became an easy target. The complete lack of physical evidence almost became an afterthought.
We were fortunate in the film to use Metallica's music—this was the first time they allowed anyone to use their songs—and we came to them with that thought: that heavy metal music is on trial here just as much as these kids are. Someone's musical interests should not be part of a trial. Then they threw in that bogus witchcraft expert. And now, with no hard evidence linking these guys to the crime, suddenly they had a case. This was before we learned about the jury tampering. And that the "knife wounds" weren't knife wounds at all but the result of post-mortem animal predation.
It was all completely bogus. And it really awakened something in me. An advocacy instinct. That didn't mean we were going to whitewash the case or discard our journalistic role. It was more like, a sense of commitment. We were going to stay with this, make films about them until they were released from prison. I had no idea it was going to take two decades.
And I'll tell you, that angers me. I want to know: why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries, millions of dollars from celebrities, and the advocacy of thousands of people from all over the world to get justice for three people? It's poor man's justice. The Three were just another set of impoverished defendants, and it took the weight of celebrities and thousands of activists to level the playing field.
You know, every time Paradise Lost airs, I get hundreds of letters from convicted criminals saying, "Hey, I'm innocent too." I ask myself: what separates Damien, Jason and Jessie from those men? And the answer, I think, is a series of flukes. First, that we happened to be there in Arkansas to make a movie. There was also Arkansas' new DNA statute, which passed in 2001, allowing convicts to appeal their cases based on DNA evidence, to prove actual innocence.
Still, that DNA testing is very expensive, plus the cost of a lawyer who's willing to take on your case. The Innocence Project handles a lot of that, but they don't take on every case. Because of the publicity from our film, the Three had enough support and financing to move forward.
There was the editing too. We came back from Arkansas with our haul of footage. This was the old days, back when you had to physically cut the film. The editing took longer, so the film was released in 1996, just as the Internet was taking shape. Internet 1.0. Like-minded people could find each other; WM3.org got started; people who wanted to help could. If the editing had been faster and the film had been released in 1994, I don't think it would have resonated with the public in that way, not in a way that would have led to action.
Coming into Arkansas in 1993, I was ambivalent about the death penalty. I would have said, if a member of my family was a victim of a violent crime, the penalty should be death. After witnessing these trials—and the proceedings that followed—my feelings are very different. I saw firsthand how easy it is to put someone to death in our justice system. The police and prosecution, under public pressure to solve crimes, they act in their own interests, not in the interest of justice. Damien said to me that without the films, without the public support, he'd be dead. And it's true.
Right now there are a lot of people in prison who are innocent.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory airs on HBO throughout January.
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