The Robbed Innocence of the West Memphis Three

A conversation with the filmmakers behind "Paradise Lost: Purgatory," the final chapter in a trilogy about the West Memphis Three.

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Jan 11 2012, 12:00am


Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, on death row with Damien Echols in 2009. Photo by Bob Richman/HBO.

The first mention in The New York Times of West Memphis’ triple homicide in the late spring of 1993 was a 135-word clip buried far behind the morning’s headline news: “Three teenagers have been arrested in the slayings of three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found last month in a drainage ditch. The victims, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Edward Branch, disappeared May 5 while riding bicycles in their neighborhood. The next day the authorities discovered their bodies in a ditch in a nearby wooded, undeveloped area known to residents as Robin Hood Park.”

Sheila Nevins, an executive producer at HBO, read the article and phoned Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsy, a pair of documentarians the network had shown interest in after their first documentary, Brother’s Keeper, won the Audience Award at Sundance the year before. Sheila wanted the duo to fly south to West Memphis and feel the case out. Joe and Bruce hopped on a plane bound for Arkansas thinking they “were going to make a film about bad guys and their impact on the community,” as Joe explains it now, 18 years and three documentaries removed from that initial phone call. He and Bruce are currently preparing to air their final film, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, in a trilogy about the child murders. What they found on that first visit to West Memphis in 1993 was a citywide witch hunt for teenage devil worshippers that landed a trio of falsely accused kids in prison for life.

“We had just gotten through this wave of Satanic hysteria and it hadn’t been fully debunked, yet,” Berlinger says. Parts of the country were concerned with protecting the masses from depraved youngsters sporting black shirts and pentagrams. An interest in Metallica was a common symptom. “At one point they were alleging that 50,000 children go missing every year to these Satanic cults,” he says. “All this stuff was just rumor, but the country was kind of gripped by Satan in the late 80s and early 90s.”

The three teenagers that Inspector Gitchell of the West Memphis Police Department had rounded up fit this stereotype nicely. Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols were reported to be “fond of drawing pentagrams, skulls, and snakes on art materials, and [had] once arrived at a football game decked in black with black tears painted on their faces,” according to a New York Times article written after the boys were charged. One parent claimed that his son had seen Damien drink blood, and a substitute teacher at the local high school recalled that he was a “wacko cult member.” The official police theory was that the three teenagers, who would later be named the West Memphis Three by their supporters, had killed and sexually mutilated three 8-year-old boys as part of a Satanic ritual.


Photo courtesy of Joe Berlinger/Radical Media/HBO.

This was the scene that Berlinger and Sinofsy walked into when they arrived in West Memphis in early June of 1993. They first gained access to the families of the three victims. “Their whole healing process,” says Berlinger, “was about investing themselves into the idea that the killers had been caught.”

Despite a lack of forensic evidence, the victims’ families agreed with Inspector Gitchell that Damien Echols was the ringleader of a three-man band of murderous devil worshippers. This story was supported almost entirely by a twelve-hour interrogation of Jessie Misskelley, of which there are only 40 minutes of recorded audio. The confession that was extracted from Jessie during this interrogation was damning. The only problem with the confession is that Jessie Misskelley has an IQ of 72.

“Jessie is mildly retarded,” says Jessie’s lawyer, Dan Stidham, in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. “It’s much easier to get a confession out of someone who is 17 and operating at a 5- or 6-year-old’s level of intellectual functioning than someone who graduated from Harvard.”

As Jessie explains it now, after 12 hours of intense questioning, he was most interested in just going home.

“I don’t like people that keep asking me questions after I done told them once,” he said in 1997 while being held without bail. “If you just egg it on then I’m going to say something so you’ll leave me alone. And that’s what I did. Finally I just told the cops, you know, I did it. I killed them and everything.“

Jessie placed himself at the crime scene six hours before the 8-year-olds had even left school. Detective Ridge can be heard leading Jessie into a more consequential timetable, one where he helped Echols and Baldwin commit capitol murder.


Jesse Misskelley, Damien Echols & Jason Baldwin. Photo Courtesy of HBO.

Bruce and Joe started to see the flaws in Detective Ridge’s case before the trial had even begun. “It was in those first interviews, particularly with Baldwin but also with Echols, that Bruce and I both realized that something was definitely not right here. It just felt like this was not a bad guy story anymore, but a wrongful conviction story. These guy were being accused of something that was hard to believe they could do.”

That first trip to West Memphis for Berlinger and Sinofsky ended with Joe and Bruce watching a jury sentence Jason Baldwin to life in prison without parole, one month after separate juries recommended death by lethal injection to Damien Echols and sentenced Jessie Misskelley Jr. to life plus 40 years.                     

The film that resulted was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. What’s stunning about that documentary today is the level of access they had on both sides of the case. “I look at Paradise Lost now and think that the film could never be made today,” Berlinger says. “The reality TV craze hadn’t hit, the 24-hour news cycle didn’t exist. The OJ Simpson trial was kind of a watershed moment when that happened. We were in Arkansas prior to those events, and I just think that people weren’t as media savvy as they are now.”

The West Memphis townspeople treated Joe Berlinger’s camera as a sort of 16 mm diary. They mugged for it as though he were shooting a home movie, posturing as pitchfork-wielding townsfolk unafraid of who might be on the viewing side of the footage.


Terry Hobbs holding up a newspaper from September 27, 2010. The newspaper has a headline that reads “West Memphis 3” with a picture of a press conference with Eddie Vedder, Lorri Davis, and Nathalie Maines. Photo Courtesy of HBO.

Thousands wrote to HBO asking for a follow-up after its premiere. A group of PR reps from California formed a group called Free the West Memphis Three and built a website that would accept donations. Celebrities sprang into action, with Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Metallica all signing checks and giving on-camera interviews about the movement.

The exposure didn’t reverse the jury’s verdict, though. The West Memphis Three had already been imprisoned for three years, and had been denied all movements for an appeal. But the surge of publicity was enough to bring Bruce and Joe back to West Memphis three years later in 1999, this time with the clear intent of lobbying for the teenagers’ release.

The second film was entitled Paradise Lost: Revelations, and both filmmakers admit that it’s the weakest of the trilogy.

“Its flaw is that it wears its advocacy on its sleeve. The reason we made it was not because we wanted to make a film for filmmaking purposes, but because we were haunted by the fact that these kids were still in prison.”

However, for the sole purpose of spreading word about the Free the West Memphis Three, the film was a success. Enough people were now following the story to justify returning for a third time five years later.

By that time, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley had been in prison for 11 years. Damien had gotten married while on death row to Lorri Davis, a pretty Brooklynite who’d seen Paradise Lost and moved to Little Rock to help with the case. Jason was working in the prison library. And Jessie had gotten a tattoo of a clock with no hands on the bald dome of his head to symbolize how time had stopped for him. When and if he were to leave prison, he would tattoo hands set to the exact time of his departure.


Filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky with Damien Echols in his holding cell during his trial in 1999. Photo courtesy of Third Eye Motion Picture/HBO.

Countless appeals had been brought to Judge Burnett without success. Due to a quirk of the Arkansas judicial system, the judge who presided over the original trial (which, in this case, was Judge Burnett) is the same judge who approves an appeal.

“We always found it very strange that the original presiding judge is also presiding over the appeals,” Joe says. “Is he the best person to determine whether the original trial was fair or not? It just seems to be an inherent conflict of interest, but in Arkansas that’s the way it works.”

It would take seven more years and a promotion before Judge Burnett would no longer preside over the appeals process. When he left, Judge David Laser filled his position and approved of an evidentiary hearing that the Arkansas Supreme Court also agreed to. The hearing would take into account DNA evidence that could support the claim of innocence from the West Memphis Three.

Bruce and Joe scrambled to finish the third film in time for the hearings, hoping to punch up awareness of the case before the state of Arkansas had a chance to squash it. But on August 11th Arkansas fired back with a twist of its own. The state had offered the West Memphis Three an Alford Plea, a legal maneuver rarely deployed because of its plain-faced cowardice.

With an admission of guilt from each of the West Memphis Three, the state of Arkansas would allow the men to walk free—with strings attached. The Alford Plea allows the state to avoid a costly and embarrassing retrial, but only if the defendants admit guilt and concede that the state holds enough evidence to convict them if it wanted to. No compensation for the lost years in prison and no pardon. If each man could stand up to a judge and stomach the act of saying that he’d killed a trio of 8-year old boys, then the state of Arkansas would release him from prison.

Jason Baldwin originally declined the offer, but gave in for the sake of Echols. If the evidentiary hearing didn’t lead to a new trial, or if that retrial produced more guilty verdicts, then Echols would be killed.

And so the West Memphis Three each stood up in front of Judge David Laser on August 19th and admitted their guilt while maintaining their innocence. And the state let them free.

“If one explores the circumstances of their release,” Sinofsky says, “it’s clear that this outcome is bittersweet.” Each man faces an additional suspended sentence if he violates the law within the next ten years. Hence, the title of the third film, Paradise Lost: Purgatory.

“The mission was to stick with the story until they got out of prison,” Joe says now. “Just from a creative and emotional and human standpoint, I’m kind of done. I remember one incident quite vividly where we had spent a late evening looking through hours and hours and hours of autopsy photos and crime scene footage. Material no one should have to look at. I remember my daughter was about six months old and I remember going home and dropping the gate of the crib and picking her up and clutching my kid, and being profoundly upset at the human condition. I feel like it kind of robbed me of some of my fatherly innocence.”


A free Jason Baldwin with filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Photo courtesy of Third Eye Motion Picture/HBO.

In the months since their release the West Memphis Three, who are probably hoping to drop that moniker soon, have been attempting to get on with life. Jessie Misskelley is living with a neighborhood caretaker, Miss Stephanie, in West Memphis. Jason Baldwin is in Seattle, hoping to study for a law degree of his own. And Damien Echols, that Satanic teenager now grown well into his 30s, has returned from an extended vacation in New Zealand with Peter Jackson. He even took on a role as an extra in Jackson’s upcoming Hobbit films.

Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, are executive producing their own account of the child murders at Robin Hood Hills, funding a fact-finding mission to reveal the true killer.

“If Peter Jackson, who is paying for the investigation now, can definitively demonstrate who the killer is, I think that would be a very worthy film,” Berlinger says. “Our mission was to get them out of prison and it was a good and important mission. But I think it’s dangerous to make a film about who the likely suspect is. This case is an enigma wrapped in an enigma. That goal has eluded us for a very long time. And the case gets colder and colder.”

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory airs on HBO on January 12th at 9 PM.

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