UPDATE: The West Memphis 3, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were just freed in an Arkansas hearing after being in prison 18 years for the murder of three children in 1993. The three were freed after pleading guilty and drawing a sentence equal to the time they already served. The original conviction, which was derived despite any physical evidence tying the trio to the murders, became a cause celebre and the West Memphis 3 have received moral and financial support from the likes of The Hobbit director Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines. The case has also be the subject of two Paradise Lost HBO documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. A third installment will premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month, followed by the New York Film Festival and a January airing on HBO.
EARLIER, AUGUST 18, 8:20 PM EXCLUSIVE: It’s just days before the directors lock their third documentary on the “West Memphis 3” for premieres at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals. But Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory helmers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky raced to Arkansas to prepare to add a new ending. They’ll bring their camera Friday morning to a hearing expected to end with the freedom of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, who spent 18 years in prison on charges they brutally murdered three 8-year old boys in 1993. The first two HBO documentaries that Berlinger and Sinofsky made on the case stirred international outrage over what many feel was a miscarriage of justice and a conviction on flimsy evidence. Echols drew the death penalty and the other two received life sentences even though there was no physical evidence tying them to a crime allegedly committed when they were 18. The jury found them guilty based largely on a prosecutor’s scenario that the teens killed as part of a satanic ritual, citing their penchant for wearing dark clothes, listening to heavy metal Metallica songs, and reading Stephen King horror novels as proof of a dark state of mind.
Though it took three films, Berlinger and Sinofsky are about to achieve something similar to what Errol Morris accomplished with his 1988 documentary Thin Blue Line, which led to a death sentence being overturned for Randall Adams, who had been convicted of murdering a Dallas policeman in 1976. HBO’s broadcast of the first two Paradise Lost led to moral and financial support for the West Memphis 3 from all over the world, including the likes of Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chicks’ singer Natalie Maines.
The filmmakers said they weren’t going to predict what will happen in the morning, but widespread reports and quotes from even the parents of the victims say the West Memphis 3 will be freed shortly. A case that seemed weak in the first film has gotten weaker with the introduction of DNA evidence that doesn’t match that of the three who were convicted. Berlinger and Sinofsky did say they will happily change their ending. “We always lamented the fact that we had to keep making sequels to this horrifying real life story,” Berlinger told me after landing in Arkansas. “It’s the West Memphis 3, and so stopping at three films seems right. We have just enough time to include what happens in the ending of the film, and it’s the most incredible feeling knowing that your work had an impact.”
Berlinger said that when he and Sinofsky were hired to document the original trial, they had only been sent a press clipping about the case by HBO exec Sheila Nevins. It seemed an open and shut case. The crime was brutal–the 8-year-olds were discovered hog-tied and mutilated in a drainage ditch–and since it closely followed the murder of a 2-year old in England by 10-year olds, the filmmakers went to Arkansas to make a movie about the psychology of young killers. “Based on the article, we wanted to tell a story of disaffected youth,” Berlinger said. “How could three kids be so rotten and do such a thing as murder three children? Then we met Damien and watched what was going on, and quickly realized we were in the midst of an incredible miscarriage of justice. It was a lethal brew. The local press found it much easier to tell a devil worshiping story than to do hard journalism, and in a Bible-thumping part of the country, prosecutors painted this picture of satanic panic. It led to the convictions.”
The first Paradise Lost created a visual record of a capital trial short on evidence but rife with allegations that police coerced damning testimony; there were also allegations of jury misconduct serious enough to have warranted a mistrial. When the documentary first aired, the reaction was mild, Berlinger said. But the Internet changed all that.
“The film got glowing reviews, but never went from the entertainment page to the editorial page,” Berlinger said. “But that was just when the Internet started being used as this primitive social media tool, and an international movement sprang up. Damien in some ways was his own worst enemy. He was kind of a narcissistic teen who enjoyed the attention because he didn’t think it was possible he could be convicted. He was an outsider who would have been normal in New York or LA, but in this fundamentalist religious community, dressing in black and listening to heavy metal made him a weirdo. He was actually a super intelligent kids who just danced to a different tune and rubbed some people the wrong way. The reason people like Vedder and Depp related to him, and the reason why Metallica lent us their music for the film [that relationship led Berlinger and Sinofsky to direct the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster] was they too felt like the freak, the outsider, in high school. The idea that in the right circumstance anyone like this could be on death row was appalling. There was no excuse for what went on in this case. When you sentence someone to death, it has to be beyond all reasonable doubt. This was a weak case. We thought the first film would change things, and then we made a second one, certain it would blow the doors off the case. But the wheels of justice moved so slowly while these guys were left to rot in jail.”
The directors are crossing their fingers tonight that the trial ends with three men exonerated by tomorrow afternoon. “We don’t want to come off arrogant or like we’re patting ourselves on the back,” Berlinger said when I asked if the first two films were responsible for what is expected to happen tomorrow morning. “This outcome is due to help from a lot of people. But Damien says in Paradise Lost 3 that he literally would have been dead if not for these films; he said his appeals were exhausted, nobody was coming to his defense and there would have been no funds to investigate new evidence that helped delay delivery of his death sentence. Bruce and I feel grateful to have served as the lucky stewards of a story that just had to be told. But we also believe the films kept these guys alive. Guys like Vedder and Depp funded this case because they saw Paradise Lost and were outraged.”
Berlinger said the film was also the catalyst for Eccols meeting his wife, Lorri Davis, a Brooklyn architect who saw the first film at a MOMA screening in 1996. “She was blown away, started writing to Damien, visited him, and married him on death row,” Berlinger said. “She spent 14 years fighting for his life, and she was so instrumental in all this happening.”