Eighteen years ago filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were alerted to a murder case in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three youths – James Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelly – were accused of raping, murdering and mutilating three 8-year-old boys. All three were convicted, and one, Echols, was sentenced to death. The film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), made a convincing case that the suspects known as the “West Memphis Three” were in fact innocent.
Berlinger and Sinofksy continued to document the West Memphis Three, releasing Paradise Lost: Revelations in 2000 and completing Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory just this summer, which is scheduled to air on HBO in January 2012. When the Memphis Three were released from prison last week, the Paradise Lost trilogy joined an honored genre of advocacy films that helped right injustices.
“When we set out to make Paradise Lost, I don’t think we ever envisioned an epic journey,” director Joe Berlinger said recently. “The goal was not to right a wrong, just the opposite.” He and Sinofsky were tipped off to the story by Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. The story “seemed like an open-and-shut case of guilty, Devil-worshipping teens who had done this rotten Satanic ritual killing of these three 8-year-old boys. We thought, ‘Let’s go make a film about rotten kids,’ kind of like a real-life River’s Edge,” a reference to the 1986 movie about a teen murder.
The case presented by the prosecution was flawed – lost confessions, debunked experts, no physical evidence linking the suspects to the crime – enough that Berlinger and Sinofsky were soon convinced of their innocence. But Berlinger also knew that they would be found guilty. “We experienced a real-life Salem witch trial,” he said.
Berlinger credits thousands of acts, small and large, for helping bring about the release of the West Memphis Three. Lawyers who worked for free, donations that paid for DNA tests and other legal costs, and the support of people like Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp all contributed to the cause. But there’s no question that Paradise Lost played a significant role in bringing the case to the public.
Just as there’s no question that The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 film by Errol Morris, helped free Randall Adams from prison. Adams was convicted of murdering police officer Robert W. Wood, and sentenced to death. Morris, a former private investigator, reconstructed the case on film, in effect conducting his own investigation into the crime. Adams was exonerated the following year when, after twelve years on Death Row, prosecutors dropped charges against him.
“Interestingly, I was very much influenced by Errol’s The Thin Blue Line,” Berlinger said. “Not by the advocacy standpoint—it didn’t inspire in me the feeling that ‘I want to fight for social justice.’ It inspired me to become a filmmaker of a particular type of movie. It made me want to make non-fiction theatrical films for moviegoing audiences, because in the late 1980s you could point to very few documentaries that ever made it to movie theaters.”
The “theatricality” of The Thin Blue Line inspired Berlinger and Sinofsky to make their first documentary feature, Brother’s Keeper. And the success of that film drew the attention of Nevins at HBO.
Berlinger notes, “Stylistically Paradise Lost was very different from The Thin Blue Line – no recreations, pure cinema verite – but I think both films do something many filmmakers are afraid to do: treat the audience like jury members. Viewers are actively engaged, instead of being passively lectured to. You come to your own conclusions.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky came to the case through a particular set of circumstances. In a sense, the Memphis Three were lucky; how many other defendants have film crews following their cases?
“Every time the Paradise Lost movies air on TV, we get inundated with letters from either convicts or relatives declaring their innocence,” Berlinger said. “With the help of The Innocence Project and other organizations, there have been hundreds and hundreds of DNA exonerations, which points to the fact that a lot of innocent people are in prison.”
In September 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court decided that the West Memphis Three deserved an evidentiary hearing that could have led to a new trial. Berlinger believes this is why Arkansas prosecutors suddenly offered the Three the opportunity to accept an “Alford plea.”
“This deal got hammered out in less than two weeks when it became politically and financially important to the state of Arkansas,” Berlinger complained. “Financially because the state worked out an agreement that it couldn’t be sued for wrongful conviction. Politically expedient because an evidentiary hearing scheduled for December was going to be embarrassing for a lot of people.”
The West Memphis Three will no longer be in prison, but in the eyes of the law they are still convicted child killers. “You know Jason Baldwin was very much against doing the Alford plea,” Berlinger said. “Unfortunately the state made it an all or nothing deal. Jason agreed to take it because he was basically saving Damien’s life. The idea of spending another two, three, four years on death row for Damien was untenable. His health had deteriorated, he hasn’t had sunlight on his body in ten years, his eyesight is damaged, he’s physically weak. It was time for him to accept a plea bargain.”
Berlinger understands the choices the West Memphis Three made. “God knows I couldn’t have survived death row under such brutal conditions. But I am extremely disappointed that the state of Arkansas didn’t have the courage to admit what we all know, there were major mistakes made in this case.”
Randall Adams’ exoneration and release from prison after the release of The Thin Blue Line was also bittersweet, as detailed in his New York Times obituary. In Texas, wrongly convicted prisoners receive a lump sum payment of $80,000 for each year of their confinement. But Adams was ineligible for any money, even the $200 traditionally handed out to prisoners who have served their sentences, because his case had been dismissed.