Toronto: 'Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory' is a plea for justice that also lets us know (more or less) who the killer is


Image Credit: Film Images

A little more than ten years ago, when they were finishing the second documentary in what turned out to be the Paradise Lost trilogy, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky chose the title Paradise Lost: Revelations. In a way, though, they could have put that title on almost any one of the three films. For when you watch Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), or Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000), or the new chapter, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which premiered this week at the Toronto Film Festival, what keeps you watching — what keeps you just about soldered to the screen — is the promise of revelation. The promise of a moment when the forensic clues (a serrated knife! a telltale hair!) finally start to fit together. When the innocence of the West Memphis Three (who were railroaded for the crime of murder) comes rushing into the light. Or when the identity of the real killer suddenly looms up before us. Every day, we see Hollywood movies that are called “thrillers,” but the addictive fascination of the Paradise Lost films is that they take us back to the feeling of shock and awe that people used to get, in a more innocent time, from Hitchcock. At key moments, they make you suck in your breath.

Recent events provided Paradise Lost 3, and the whole series, with the ending we’ve been waiting for. The West Memphis Three, who had all been in prison since 1994 — the shaggy Tom Sawyeresque Jason Baldwin; the drawling bumpkin Jessie Misskelley; and the owlish-eyed, black-haired, Wicca-meets-the-Cure punk bohemian Damien Echols, who was the original lightning rod for the trio’s image as heavy metal demons — were all set free just a few weeks ago, on Aug. 19. Let’s make this clear: They owed the overturning of their sentences to the Paradise Lost films — one of the few times that a documentary has exerted such a powerful real-world effect on establishing a convicted killer’s innocence. (It first happened with Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line back in 1988.) The filmmakers will add 12 minutes of footage to the version of Paradise Lost 3 that’s set to play at the New York Film Festival in October. But they couldn’t do the reediting in time for Toronto, so the version that premiered here was the one completed two days before the three men were released.

The West Memphis Three also owed their freedom to a roster of hipster celebrities who’d spoken out on their behalf and lent hundreds of thousands of dollars to their cause. Damien Echols, who spent 17 years on death row, won the attention of people like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Jackson because he was ostracized for being a freaky middle-class “outsider.” He and the others were the victims of a witch hunt, one that reflected a disgusting level of prejudice on the part of the West Memphis, Ark., community (and legal system). It’s worth noting, however, that the prejudice in America that most often sends innocent men to death row is racial. The special resonance of the West Memphis Three case wasn’t the level of injustice, as outrageous as that was. It was the way that, back in 1994, the whole small-town-community-vs.-demon-metal-kids scenario became an early, and powerful, expression of the culture wars. Like all classic witch hunts, the railroading of the West Memphis Three tapped into larger social fears — in this case, the anxiety that a generation of kids, drawn under the spell of “satanic” pop culture, were losing their minds and souls.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory spends a lot of time getting the audience back up to speed on the case, which I guess it had to do (at least, to be a stand-alone documentary feature on HBO), though at certain points I found myself going, “Hey, I saw the first two movies — stop telling me stuff I already know.” The film was made, even more than the others, as a piece of advocacy, but for that reason it starts off a tad sluggish. (The Feb. 27, 2010 edition of 48 Hours Mystery packed the entire case, quite effectively, into 48 minutes.) Then again, it’s crucial to Berlinger and Sinofsky that we spend some time with the three convicts, two of whom — Jason and Jessie — now look a lot older, a reflection (in Misskelley’s case) of the daily wear and tear of prison. Damien (pictured above, in between Sinofsky and Berlinger), still handsome and spookily self-possessed, got married during his incarceration, and the years, if anything, seem to have honed him, to have burned away his self-consciousness. He’s quite frank about confessing why he acted so cavalier during the original trial (he thought that the justice system worked — that there was no way he was ever going to be found guilty), but his poker face still reveals no self-pity or fear. Unlike your average death-row inmate, he probably took some solace in being a cause célèbre.

Fifteen years ago, I was mesmerized by Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory sucked me right back in. The movie reveals, in scandalous detail, exactly how the three men were convicted (Jessie Misskelley’s false, coerced confession wasn’t legally admissible in the trial of the other two — but it was snuck into the jury room anyway). And it’s deeply gripping to see the evidence, presented at a press conference back in 2007, that finally exonerated them. The defense team assembled a quartet of extraordinary analysts: a legendary forensic investigator, a star veteran of FBI criminal profiling, and so forth. As each of them makes his demonstration, the case, at last, begins to come clear. The mutilated bodies? The result of biting, tearing woodland animals, not satanists. The telltale serrated knife? It had nothing to do with anything. And then, of course, there’s the real revelation: the DNA evidence, not available back when the case was first tried. Quite simply, there is no DNA linking any of the West Memphis Three to these horrible crimes. But there is a hair, wound into one of the ligatures that tied the boys’ corpses, that points to another suspect…

The first movie implied that John Mark Byers, the tall, creepy, angry, sunken-eyed, hellfire-Christian adoptive father of one of the victims, may have been the killer. And Byers, who kept finding more and more flamboyant ways to swear holy vengeance upon the West Memphis Three (at one point in the new film, we see an old clip of him igniting lighter fluid in the woods as a ritual of rage), still creeps me out. He now lives in a remote shack, and at one point, when the filmmakers are interviewing him, I glanced over at a shelf behind Byers (which the film itself never calls attention to) and noticed the spine of just about the only book he has on it, a volume called BTK, about the Wichita, Kansas, serial killer of the late ’70s and ’80s. (I was a newspaper intern in Wichita during the summer of 1979, and I remember well the fearful fascination he inspired.) For just a second, I flashed back to that great moment in Manhunter when FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) explains how he caught Dr. Lecter, who was, at the time, the psychiatrist of a college girl who’d been murdered. Talking to Lecter in his office, he glanced up at Lecter’s bookshelf and saw a telltale volume with photographs of war wounds in it. And that’s when he knew that Lecter was the killer. I thought: That’s it! BTK is John Mark Byers’ Lecter book! He’s the killer!!

But that’s just the sort of agitated “Aha!” state that the Paradise Lost films will put you in. In fact, Paradise Lost 3 points to a completely different suspect, Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of another one of the victims. He comes off like your basic outwardly genial, inwardly mean, and very guarded redneck, but what it’s really all about, of course, is the evidence. I could lay it out for you here, but instead I will just say: Watch Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. It brings off that thing that only a true thriller can, sweeping you up into a place where the clues start to come together, and an unimaginable crime is suddenly brought into full focus right before your eyes. And as disturbing and sick and scary as it is, you can’t look away.

So who has seen Paradise Lost or Paradise Lost: Revelations? How avidly have you followed this case? And how badly do you want to see the new film?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Comments (42 total) Add your comment
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  • Kate

    I was aware of this case for a very long time (I was a criminal justice major in college between 1995 and 1999) but only recently saw Paradise Lost (I see on demand I can watch 2, but was a little conflicted because I watched the first with the knowledge that they were out, so I wasn’t sure the 2 would be helpful). I will watch 3 when it gets to HBO, which I would actually think will be soon.

    • ree

      I am really looking forward to seeing Paradise Lost 3. I hadn’t seen the first 2 films until recently – but I had some knowledge about the case through things like that 48 Hours Mystery episode. The first documentary really tries to present the facts about the case – and the facts about the police investigation (or lack of), and lets the viewer come to their own conclusion. The second film ads some information that wasn’t included in the original documentary, and it leaves no question that these kids – now men – were really railroaded by the police.

  • Debra

    Compelling, mesmerizing, powerful. Documentary filmmaking at its best, “the truth shall set you free”. Can’t wait to see the third installment, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.

  • JP

    I’ve been following the WM3 case since the premiere of the first documentary and have read Mara Leveret’s book and Blood of Innocents and anything I can find online — the sticking point with me is why do the prosecution and WMPD still insist on their guilt all these years later when every single time new evidence comes forward it points away from these three men? I thought maybe there was something that sealed the case for the police, but I’ve never seen what it is — So incredible that they needed to produce a demon because they couldn’t conceive that a family member or someone who knew these kids well did this. I agree with John Douglas’ profile of someone who was trying to show his authority and discipline the boys but went too far — and Hobbs’ seems to be the prime suspect — think he couldn’t handle Chris Byers and hurt him badly, then had to deal with the other two. Hobbs laid low and and the histrionics of John Byers and the community’s call to arms distracted attention from him. However, I don’t think he will ever be convicted of this crime.
    Looking forward to seeing PL3 and glad that these men are out of prison.

    • Atiya

      I cant beleive maxnceis sneak over the border to come to Crap hole usa(california) when they got this bad ass country already

  • Alex G

    I saw the screening at the Toronto Film Festival and was gripped from beginning to end. It’s too bad the ending couldn’t have been updated in time, but it was great to hear the filmmakers in a Q&A afterwards talking about how Damien, Jason and Jessie are doing now that they’re free men at long last. (Spoiler Alert: they’re doing well. Thank goodness.)

  • Compassionate Reader

    I, too, am looking forward to the HBO release of PL 3 in January. I have followed this case since the first documentary, have read both major books and also look forward to the release of the sequel to “Devil’s Knot.” My son is one month younger than Damien and, like Damien, wore a wardrobe of black concert T-shirts and listened almost exclusively to heavy metal music while in high school. I was very happy with the recent release of the WMFree, but I long for true exoneration and the punishment of the real killer. As to why the WMPD and the State of Arkansas still insist on the guilt of the WMFree, that’s easy. Too many political careers were built on this case for the State to admit that they were wrong. I hope and pray that Scott Ellington, as he promised in a Q & A session at the Clinton School, will look at the new evidence the defense hands him and will reopen the case, investigate, prosecute and convict the real killer and exonerate the WMFree.

  • ben

    I grew up an hour away from where these three men lived and am roughly the same age (Jason Baldwin and I). The shame I had watching the first documentary back when it premiered on HBO i the 90s was pervasive. I, like many in Arkansas, bought into their “guilt” because that’s what we were told. Since then I have been an advocate, even if only handing my copies of the old vhs versions of the first two docs and telling people to watch and be apalled. Damien says it often, and it is true, these documentaries saved his life, and ultimately freed the three. I look forward to the third. Also, if interested, the 48-hours episode on the case is being re-aired this Saturday night (9/17) on CBS.

  • Tara W

    I became aware of this case in 2001 in a criminal law class when we talked about coerced confessions. The professor put up a link to where we could read more about the case and I was hooked. I spent the next few weeks pouring over case notes, evidence and anything I could get my hands on.

    I watched both films after scouring every video store I could to find a copy of the tapes. You barely need to start reading the case notes before you can see deep deep flaws in the evidence and you start to smell the reek of satanic panic.

    I have been fundraising and raising awareness for this case since! I am dying to see the third movie and tried to win passes to the festival but sadly no! I hope it is released to the public soon!

    People should not forget about this cause and should continue to donate and advocate so that the investigation into the real killer(s) continues and these three men are fully exhonerated!

  • Chad Concelmo

    I can’t wait to see this. I am a huge fan of the other two movies and have been following this case for years.

  • nunya

    Can’t wait to see this.

  • Stacey

    I too have been following this case from the time of the killings. In the beginning the Arkansas Media had these three tried and convicted before any court had a chance. Upon seeing Paradise Lost I was amazed at the things that were kept out of the media. I am really looking forward to the Purgatory and was so happy the day these men were released!

  • Jan

    I am a Memphian who was in junior high school when the murders occurred. After college I worked in West Memphis for a year (even coming in contact with the policeman who worked on the case) and a lot of people who lived there didn’t think Damien, Jessie and Jason were guilty (mostly those who were around their age). And I sensed how that small town could turn on people who were “different.” Reputation is everything and the city is very old-fashioned. I first realized the three guys may not be guilty when celebrities started advocating for them – then I saw the documentaries and really realized they were not guilty. This case was messed up and they shoudl have been declared innocent after all this time. The system doesn’t always work – that’s frightening.

  • Regina

    Weird, amateurish review.
    Re: the previous and latest doc., this case could have been much better documented had Errol Morris been the filmmaker.

    • Linda

      There is no way this is Florida. I’ve lived in Florida my ernite life and have never seen anything like this. Florida oceans are not that clear. This looks like an island somewhere. Maybe Fiji. Definitely not Florida. Beautiful wallpaper though.

  • Julie

    I have followed this case from the first film and always knew they were innocent. I was elated when I found out they were set free. I can’t wait to see the 3rd film. Bless all 3 men….they deserve this second chance at life!

  • Grace

    Great review. I just want to add that Damien Echols was not from a middle-class family. He was in fact from a very poor family that at one point lived in destitute poverty. He lived in a shack (shanty house) as a child. These boys were picked on for the way they looked but this case had a lot to do with socioeconomics. If three wealthy boys from West Memphis had been accused there would have never been a trial. Many of the police officers and the judge figured no one would miss these boys and that their lives did not matter because they were dirt poor.

  • cissie

    Owen! Great article! Just reading your description of how these docu-films will have us soldered to the screen – soldered me to my screen. I have the first two Paradise DVD, and “Devil’s Knot”, but am honestly to wussy to watch/read either right now. I wholly support DJJ, of course, and am anxiously awaiting some soundbites from them as free men. I promise to nut up and watch the DVDs, as well as read Mara’s book. Thanks for your wonderful writing, too! Cissie

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