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HBO Documentaries has made a vital contribution down through the years to the continuing development and success of the documentary film. This almost pales in comparison to its contribution to the recent freeing of three undoubtedly innocent men, incarcerated 18 years for murder, who only last month walked out of an Arkansas court free men thanks to not one but three films made for HBO by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The final film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, was completed less than a week before the so-called West Memphis Three were set free in a courtroom deal last month that is still the subject of heated controversy. Their film premiered this week in Toronto.
The final film — of course, with this case, the word “final” is relative so who knows? — is first and foremost a testament to the power of the documentary. You watch so many films about injustice and get mad not just about the injustice but your own helplessness to do anything. In this case, however, everyone from celebs to ordinary Joes contributed time, protests and money to the cause of freeing the wrongly convicted. That money paid for court appeals and later, with advances in DNA science, for testing that further helped the cause.
While Purgatoryacknowledges that the filmmakers are now part of the story, it doesn’t play up their role and certainly shares credit for the re-examination of the bizarre legal case with other media outlets. These are not strident films of advocacy, unless by that one means advocacy for justice. Every player is given due consideration in front of the camera. Only the viewer can help but notice the righteous certainty of many — the police investigator, trial judge and even some of the victims’ parents — fall from their faces as the years go by and new evidence comes forth.
The first film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which premiered at 1996 Sundance and later aired on HBO, brought the case to national attention and raised questions in many minds as to whether the then teenagers were railroaded into convictions almost solely by the prosecution’s mischaracterization of them as being in a satanic cult. (They liked dark clothes and the music of Metallica.) When no real clues or suspects turned up, West Memphis police went looking for suspects they could demonize. They found them in Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.
Back in 1993, no one knew about false confessions. Back then, DNA was still a theory. The cops got finally a confession out of Misskelley after 17 hours of grilling, which produced only 41 minutes of audiotape. It didn’t help that he is mildly retarded.
The second film documented evidence against a stepfather of one of the victims. This final film discounts that evidence but, thanks to DNA testing, finds a new potential suspect. This evidence would never convict anyone in court, but it is certainly more evidence than the prosecution ever had against the West Memphis Three.
Misskelley’s confession was inadmissible in the trial of the other two boys. However, a former lawyer for the original jury’s foreman has now filed an affidavit saying that the foreman, determined to convict, brought the confession up in deliberations to sway undecided jurors.
The film makes clear that many of the town’s citizens, police, the judge and relatives of the victims cling to their belief in the guilt of these men now approaching middle age. It’s very hard to un-demonize people.
The film may be a little guilty of demonizing as well. There are any number of shots of the flag of Arkansas, which could be interpreted as a reminder that this is the South, a region that for a long time maintained a different system of justice for blacks and poor white trash. Let’s be honest though, cases involving false confessions, planted evidence, jailhouse informants and police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct can be found in every state. What the Paradise Lostmovies really are about is mass hysteria and convenient scapegoats.
It’s unclear if the films even have a happy ending. Three men paid 18 years of their lives for crimes they did not commit while the real perpetrator went free. Maybe the filmmakers do have another film to add to the series.
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