Isn't the American judicial system supposed to stand by the motto "innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?" If that's the case, why are Jessie Miskelly, Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols sitting prison, Damien on death row? That's the question posed by the Emmy Award winning Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, a 1996 documentary from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (who would later go on to make Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster) originally made for HBO. The film makes a pretty damn good case that these three kids got screwed by their community.
Better known as The West Memphis Three, Miskelly, Baldwin and Echols are currently incarcerated for the gruesome and horrifying murders of three boys in a rural section of West Memphis, Arkansas known as Robin Hood Hills. The three bodies were discovered on a river bank, mutilated and sexually abused in what appeared to be some sort of Satanic ritual. The film, shot over the span of a year during the time that the three accused murderers were on trial, goes about asking questions not only of the three suspects but also of the parents and families of the victims, members of the community, and members of the court including defense and prosecution attorneys. The picture it paints is horrifying not only because of the scope of the crimes they were put on trial for, but because of how shoddy the prosecution's case was and the fact that they were able to convict them all guilty on all counts.
Make no mistake, Paradise Lost does not prove that the West Memphis Three are innocent, but that's not what is important. What is important is that it sure as Hell looks like they're not guilty - two very different things. Yes, it is possible that they did it but it has not been proven inconclusively that they did but now their lives are forever screwed up anyway. There are simply too many unanswered questions about the case for this to have been a fair trial. Why did the cops let a man seen near the murder scene on the night of the crime who was covered in blood at a restaurant just disappear without following up? Why wasn't more thought put into the fact that one of the boys' fathers gave the filmmakers a knife that may have contained his own son's blood on it and that could have been used to make the wounds on the bodies? What about the witness testimony that conflicts with the actual proven events that took place that night? What about the fact that the first two hours of Jessie Miskelly, who has an IQ of only seventy two, were not recorded nor will any of those involved in said interrogation speak up about those two hours? Was Miskelly forced into speaking out against his friends under duress? It's certainly possible.
In short, without wanting to sound like a wacko conspiracy theorist, it's very possible and, dare I say it, very likely that these three kids were convicted not because they were guilty but because the local authorities screwed up and didn't catch anyone and, under mounting pressure from an understandably upset public, pinned it on three kids who really didn't fit in so well in the small Bible Belt community they had the luck of being born into. If that is the case, obviously that's just wrong. Though I have nothing but the deepest of sympathies for the families of those who were killed and nothing but the utmost sadness at the completely unnecessary loss of three young lives, the families of those killed latched onto the idea of the three older boys being the guilty ones with such fervor and hatred that it's literally frightening. Rage and anger over their children's death is completely forgivable but to allow someone to film you using a pistol that leaves no marks on the bullet (rendering it impossible to identify with most ballistic testing) while practicing your target shooting on a pumpkin and calling out the names of the three accused doesn't really do much to win anyone's trust or compassion - it makes you look like a lunatic. It's interesting to watch some of the parents pose for the cameras and add as much dramatic depth to their segments as they do, too. But that's beside the point. The focus shouldn't be on whether the parents are crazy or not but on the fact that there are three people in jail for something that it's very possible they had no part in. They were linked to Satanic activities that none of them were proven to have partaken in and they were seen as outcasts because they listened to Slayer and wore black t-shirts (gasp!) in a community so closed minded that they couldn't accept that.
Four years later, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky returned to familiar territory with their 2000 follow up film, Revelations: Paradise Lost 2. By this time, their initial film had helped to raise some needed attention to the events that had taken place and the case was quickly garnering support. The second film presents more evidence, catches us up on various investigations and legal issues that have come up since the first movie and more or less expands on what came before it.
The focus here is largely centered around Echols' most recent (at the time) court date, scheduled as an appeal to get him off of death row. It doesn't work, but the growing movement to free the West Memphis Three stars to gain national attention. We spend more time with John Mark Byers, who seems to be largely unhinged, and witness a load of interviews with various attorneys connected to the case. Like most 'middle' films, this one lacks the punch of the first and the closure of the third...
...which brings us to the third film in the series, Paradise Lost: Purgatory. Almost twenty years since the three were convicted, we once again head to Arkansas. By this point, the movement to reevaluate the case has gotten even bigger and new DNA evidence has arrived that goes a long way towards clearing the three. Testimony given under coercion is discussed and we spend a fair bit of time with Echols' lawyer again. We also learn how Echols got married and more or less just catch up with the three accused, now fully grown men who have spent the majority of their collective lives behind bars.
Additionally, without wanting to head too far into spoiler territory, this third film goes a good way towards discussing and making the case for a key character who is more likely the actual killer given his association with and proximity to the victims in the case. This aspect of the story remains open ended for now. As the film comes to a close, the accused are given the opportunity to opt for an Alford Plea - this essentially means that by admitting their guilt they'll be sentenced to time served and let out of prison. Given that Echols remained on death row when this was brought about, it made sense that they'd go for it and they did. Despite the fact that Jason Baldwin wanted to continue to fight to completely clear his name, he gave in and accepted the plea simply to save Damian's life. As the film draws to a close it makes it pretty clear that there really are no winners here. Three boys are still dead and it would appear that the three people originally convicted are innocent and while they're now walking around free men for the first time in eighteen years, that doesn't take away from the fact that they spent so much time in jail.
Watched back to back as a trilogy this is a lot to take in but it's never less than fascinating. It's grim subject matter to be sure, and very often quite depressing but at the same time inspiring in that these movies stand as a testament to how film can change lives. Had the first film never been made - and keep in mind the filmmakers went to the location assuming that the three were guilty and only changed their minds after they started investigating - they'd probably still be locked up or worse.
Both films were made for HBO and intended for a home video audience so the 1.33.1 fullframe format makes sense, which is how both of the first two films are presented on this four disc set. The third film was composed for 1.78.1 widescreen and is presented that way, with anamorphic enhancement. The bulk of the footage for the two documentaries was shot on video and as such it has some of the softness usually associated with the format but for the most part, both films do look very good here. The colors are lifelike and very natural looking, time was obviously taken to light the interviews and recorded footage as well as possible and the end result is quite a decent looking picture. There's some mild edge enhancement but no problems with mpeg compression artifacts or print damage.
The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks on both films are just fine. Some of the footage shot outdoors or in less than ideal environments such as courtrooms and the like sounds a little on the hollow side but that's to be expected, really. Dialogue and background music (most of which is supplied by Metallica - Sanitarium from Master Of Puppets gets a lot of airtime here) sound nice and clean and while this is hardly home theater demo material, it doesn't need to be either. It works just fine as it is. Subtitles are provided in French, Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese.
The first disc include some Deleted Scenes And Bonus Footage not used in the feature version of the film. The best of this is the forty-two minutes worth of material from Echols' trial, it's quite interesting. Additionally we get a time line of the events and a trailer for the feature, some biographies for the filmmakers, menus and chapter stops. The second disc includes a still gallery and filmmaker bios.
The extras for the third film include Press Day Panel Discussion With The West Memphis Three which is a seven minute collection of clips, four deleted scenes totaling just under half an hour, and a couple of quick interviews with the filmmakers. Biographies for the filmmakers and some menus are also included here.
The fourth disc in the set includes a never before seen Full Interview With Jason Baldwin recorded by the filmmakers on the first m after he was released from prison. As stated above, Baldwin went in on the plea to save Echols' life and holds no grudge towards Echols for that. However, he obviously hopes to someday clear his name. As he sits in front of the camera, seemingly and understandably quite nervous, he talks about what it was like spending so much time behind bars and about his appreciation for finally being granted his freedom. It's quite an interesting and lengthy interview and a very nice addition to this set. Also included here is 'Lost" 1993 Footage from the Filmmakers' Archives which includes bits where Jessie meets with his lawyer before the trial, segments with Echols and Jason Baldwin and then a segment with West Memphis Chief Prosecutor Gary Gitchell. Last but not least, the fourth disc also includes a collection of deleted scenes from Paradise Lost 3 - three scenes in total running just under ten minutes.
Additionally, inside the case is a new twenty-page booklet of photographs taken from the filmmakers' 'personal archives' shot during the making of the three movies that populate this set. Some writing from the filmmakers is also included.
The Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector's Edition isn't the type of thing you'll watch over and over again nor is it something you put on in the background as simple entertainment. These are heavy, weighty and important films that deal very bluntly with some grim subject matter. With that said, all three movies need to be seen and while the quality of the presentation may occasionally be a bit rough around the edges, the content of the features and the supplements make up for that. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.