West Memphis Three: 'Paradise Lost' director talks about their freedom

West-memphis-3

Image Credit: Danny Johnston/AP Images

On the other end of the phone line, Joe Berlinger sounded both ecstatic and relieved. After all, it had been 15 long years since he and his filmmaking partner, Bruce Sinofsky, first released the award-winning documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills — an HBO movie that advocated for justice in the case of the West Memphis Three. And now, a decade and a half later, their story finally had an ending.

The 1993 case, which later became a cause célèbre for entertainers like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, sent three teenagers to jail for the brutal murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. But as Berlinger and Sinofsky’s film pointed out, the evidence against them was always sketchy at best. In the meantime, the three convicted teens — Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Damien Echols — spent 18 years in prison maintaining their innocence.

Until today.

“It’s an amazing moment,” says Berlinger by cell phone from Arkansas. “For all of us who have fought for this day, it’s thrilling.”

Baldwin, Misskelley, Jr., and Echols accepted a plea bargain on Friday that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had significant evidence against them. In other words, by admitting they were guilty (even if they didn’t mean it), they were allowed to walk free. And while Berlinger is overjoyed to see the West Memphis Three finally released, he’s enraged by the conditions of the deal.

“I mean, it’s wonderful,” says Berlinger. “I would have made the same decision if I were them., but it’s deeply disturbing that the state of Arkansas did not have the courage to admit that it made a mistake. It’s astounding how long it’s taken for the wheels of justice to grind through.”

Ironically, when Berlinger first found out about the fast-breaking developments in the case earlier this week, he was busy putting the final touches on Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory — the latest chapter in his and Sinofsky’s 15-year-long odyssey of the imprisoned trio. He received a call on Tuesday night saying that he needed to get his camera and head down to Arkansas immediately. Something was happening. When Baldwin, Misskelley, Jr., and Echols were released today, he was there watching the whole surreal event unfold through the viewfinder of his camera.

The West Memphis Three’s saga may finally be over, but for Berlinger and Sinofsky, the next filmmaking challenge is just beginning. After all, Paradise Lost 3 was scheduled to make it world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. Now, after the events of the past 24 hours, the ending has to be changed. There may not be time to do radical editing before Toronto, but Berlinger says that the West Memphis Three’s release has to be acknowledged somehow. After the festival, he suspects that more of the footage they’ve shot today can be edited in time for the film’s January premiere on HBO. In any event, Berlinger and Sinofsky can at least take some solace in the vindication of their cause. The scrappy, low-budget story they’ve spent the past 15 years of their lives telling finally has one hell of a Hollywood ending.

Read more:
Henry Rollins on West Memphis Three: ‘It is a good day’
West Memphis Three reach plea deal for freedom
’48 Hours Mystery’: Johnny Depp says three convicted killers are ’1,000% innocent’
Review: Paradise Lost


Comments (64 total) Add your comment
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  • Matthew

    It’s crazy. Was just watching this story on Current the other day, thanks to you guys’ plug of the “50 Greatest Documentaries” miniseries. I feel so badly for these 3 – their lives were taken away without any evidence or proof needed to keep them behind bars.

  • justice lite

    Too little, too late, and shame on the Prosecutors, but i for one am very happy that those three men are outside where they belong. I’m sure there are those who still believe them guilty (not me,) but there needs to be a LOT more convincing evidence before they can justly be sent back, so let’s just be glad for their release.

    • k4815162342

      ABOUT TIME!!!

    • Acaseofgeo

      Shame on Prosecutors for pursuing a case against those who BRAGGED about doing the murders? I don’t know about you but I don’t go around bragging about murders I didn’t commit. You must be a fan of the “CSI-effect”. I truly hope these guys are innocent and if they are, hopefully they’ve learned a lesson about bragging about murdering people they didn’t actually murder.

      • Skye

        Bragging isn’t a crime, dummy.

      • Annie

        Get YOUR facts straight. The only suggestion of anyone bragging about it came from two little girls whose testimony was questionable given the facts known. This, against a boatload of evidence that they did NOT do it. Even the so-called confession from Jessie was rife with patent errors, and came only after 12 hours of incredibly leading interrogation, refused by a judge as the basis for a warrant for its gross inaccuracies, and then he was basically TOLD what to say — all from a man with an IQ of less than 75 and the mental functioning of a first-grader. Come ON.

      • Dave

        They never bragged about it. Some little girls claimed they heard them bragging about it, but couldn’t explain how or why they heard it. You sound pretty gullible.

      • WM Resident

        I wouldn’t admit to guilt if I didn’t do it would you? They did it, Misskelly admitted it TWICE. That would have all come out had they waited for a new trial. But they took a plea deal instead.

  • Shellibelli

    great ending to a very very sad story.

  • – west memphis 3 facts


    Facts:
    Misskelley confessed three separate times. Baldwin told someone else he committed the crimes. Echols was seen in muddy clothes near the crime scene. He bragged about the murder to two other teenagers, stating he killed the three boys. This was presented as evidence at the trial. Echols also had a history of psychiatric treatment. His reported actions included brutally killing a dog, starting fires at his school, threatening to kill his teachers and parents and stating he liked to drink blood.

    Echols’ stated under cross-examination that he was interested in the occult. A funeral register found in his room with hand-drawn pentagrams and upside-down crosses. Echols’ journal contained morbid images and references to dead children.

    • Well Then

      Why do you think they are being released? Could it be that there is more concrete evidence that exonerates them, and perhaps points to another perpetrator? The State of Arkansas has stuck to it’s guns for years on this case, something must have changed recently, you think?

      • Acaseofgeo

        I have to agree. WHY would these kids have gone around bragging that they killed 3 boys? WHO does that? And WHO confesses to murders they didn’t commit? I think the state had sufficient evidence FOR trial, if not a guilty verdict. I’m not one of those celebrity CSI-effect people who NEED DNA evidence as proof. You can commit a murder without leaving DNA evidence.

      • Seriously

        DNA evidence has exonerated lots of peopel who have confessed to crimes they did not commit. Police interrogation tactics are so abusive and coercive that many confess just to get it to stop. Innocent people are told that they don’t need lawyers, but statistics have proven otherwise. Never talk to the police without a lawyer present.

      • Well Then

        Why would they brag about it if the DID do it? The “confession” and the bragging were by special needs kids, who had been bullied. They’d been cultivating a creepy reputation to try to scare the bullies off. It’s not that uncommon. If they bragged about it, it’s because they knew they hadn’t really done it and didn’t think they’d actually get arrested for it.

    • Skye

      Pentagrams ward off evil spirits. They’re not a sign of the devil. Grow a brain, dummy.

      • rerun

        Well…he probably should have drawn more of them then.

      • Earthboy

        Yeah, dummy. And drinking blood is used only for cleansing the soul, not for extending immortal life. Stupid.

      • HellPriest

        Right on Earthboy and Skye. I also want to add that human sacrifice is not satanic but a means to free souls from their earthly bondage. I mean open your eyes, people.

    • Seriously

      Misskelly’s confession was interrogated for hours without an adult present (illegal as he was underage) and was only recorded at the end of the interrogation. Even after all that, he still got most of it wrong, including the time and the manner of the killing. You need to do some research on false confessions and police interrogation tactics.

      • Rawhide

        Read the actual court opinions (on google scholars legal opinions), not the website created by Hollywood defenders, to learn the facts that were the basis of these convictions. To opponents of the death penalty–who are typically moral relativists, the end justifies any means of reversing a conviction.

    • Annie

      FACT: Misskelley’s “three” confessions were actually repeated because (A) the judge REFUSED to issue a warrant on the first one, it was so riddled with factual errors and (B) it took the cops two more times to get Jessie to say what they wanted him to say – he kept insisting things had happened in ways they knew didn’t happen.
      FACT: Misskelley had the functional mental capacity of a first-grader and was interrogated for over 12 hours, no lawyer.
      FACT: I used to listen to Metallica and read occult books. I’m the most straight-laced middle-aged woman you could imagine. I never killed anyone, and neither did these three young men.

    • Dave

      All of these things are wildly exaggerated. I have some Stephen King books around here, does that mean I have “occult materials” in my house? You sound like a paranoid 80s nitwit mother, not a grown adult. You’d made an excellent Arkansas juror.

    • WM Resident

      And isn’t it a shame that so much of this was not allowed into evidence. At least they sat in jail 18 years, hopefully they are rehabilitated…

  • Mother’s love

    I think the most telling information is the support of the boys’ parents. If two out of the three GROUPS of parents believe they are innocent then there has to be serious doubt on guilt. The one hold out is a viable suspect. That to me will be the main reason to support their release.

  • gertie

    Is Mother’s love serious?

    A mother is almost the most doubtful of her child’s crimes. She should be the most unreliable.

  • Mother’s love

    I think either I didn’t articulate my point or you didn’t understand but the two of the three parents’ of the boys who were KILLED support thei release of Memphis 3.

  • baichide66

    Thanks so much for your immediate and helpful responses and the very quickly shipping. i loves this new dress! I am very satisfied with your service additionally, the dress

  • Rory

    Having followed this case for so many years, I have a strong feeling of elation today. I hope that these men are now allowed to get on with their lives in peace. The fact that they are probation is utterly ridiculous but if it is the price for their freedom, then its a small one.

    • Stacey

      How can they get on with their lives? Who would hire them? What job skills do they possess? Their lives have been destroyed along with any possibility of being functioning members of “society”.

  • Brian Wallace

    I have read multiple books, seen the documentaties, read the confessions, etc. and have real doubts about their innocence. I tend to agree with “West Memphis 3 facts.” I am intelligent and educated. I have reasoning skills. People are mesmerized by the celebrities (although, a Dixie Chick, a member of Pearl Jam and Henry Rollings really aren’t our greatest entertainers) and feel if people get released from jail they have to be less responsible. They had to plead “Guilty” to be released, anyway. I’m sorry. But it will only be a matter of time before they all will be back in jail. Or they may find evidence of who really committed these crimes. They may not have to look that far.

    Brian

  • Paul Franklin

    “…accepted a plea bargain on Friday that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had significant evidence against them. In other words, by admitting they were guilty (even if they didn’t mean it), they were allowed to walk free”.
    No, that’s NOT what it means “in other words”. Please stick to the facts and keep your opinion out of it.

    • Dirge

      The author’s misinterpretation of the deal isn’t an opinion–it’s just a misinterpretation.

  • Shane

    Such a wonderful – if belated- ending to a very sad story.
    Its hard to remember, now, but back then the fear of any kid who was interested in dark imagery and deathmetal music was epic. Now, people do grasp that fear is silly- except for likely in small town America where religion trumps common sense. These boys did not commit the crime and this is yet another case of the past behaviour of coercive police tactics coming back to haunt cases. There are many more examples of this, this one was just highlighted because it was so egregious in its lack of common sense and lack of intellect (as acaseofgeo exhibits). We have to hope that as sociey enlightens, so do the small town police. And eventually the poorly read as well.
    But such a great ending to this story!!! So happy for these young men.

  • Lea

    It’s very sad the the state of Arkansas couldn’t admit it’s error in prosecuting these three. There wasn’t any evidence what so ever against them except Misskelly’s confession. Misskelly, with a very low intellect, who got many facts of the case wrong, by the time he recanted the ball had started rolling. The real killer will never be convicted since Arkansas is closing the case!

  • MsDT1323

    Misskelly’s “confession” was a joke. He is mildly retarded, interrogated for over 12 hours & then the last hour was the only bit on tape. As he “confessed” he was hand fed the correct details of the case that he was blatantly wrong about. Who brags about killing things, back in the 90’s? STUPID kids that thought it was cool to be considered into the occult. Watch the documentaries and read the books related to this case. You may find yourself changing your mind or looking at it differently.

  • nunya

    Great photo…sad these guys won’t get any compensation from the state for this gigantic screw up.

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