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Documentary Review: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
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West Memphis ThreeParadise Lost 3: Purgatory
Coming to DVD
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Starring Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, Lorri Davis, Mark Byers, Terry Hobbs, Burk Sauls, Dale Griffis, Natalie Maines, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
HBO
Aired: January 12, 2012

The new documentary, Paradise Lost: Purgatory, third in the Paradise Lost series, attains a sense of closure in the case of the West Memphis Three. Recalling and reprising events from the previous two documentaries, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky also follow the developments of the preceding ten years, leading up to the release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley in 2011.

Being a long-time believer of the innocence of, and a supporter of, the West Memphis Three, and this now being the year of 2012, I still find it difficult to believe that the convicted men are now free. I was always hopeful they would one day see freedom and liberty, but had a lingering, deep, dark fear that it would never be in my lifetime.

In 1993, three young boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, were killed in West Memphis, Arkansas. Teenagers at the time, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were accused of the murders, and were convicted of the crimes based upon the prosecution’s case that it was a “Satanic rite” or occult sacrifice. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life, while Echols was handed the death penalty.

For almost twenty years, the men have always maintained their innocence. The first documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills gathered a great deal of attention from many people who believe they were innocent also. Some, including Burk Sauls, formed a support group on the web at wm3.org called Free The West Memphis Three. The support gathered momentum, finding people not only in Arkansas, but across the world that believed in their innocence.

Paradise Lost 3 is, in and of itself, an extraordinary stand-alone documentary. Those who have never seen the first two films, or who have little-to-no knowledge of the West Memphis Three case, are given an excellent run-down of the events, the evidence (old and new), and a sturdy overview of what happened over the course of the previous two documentaries.

Footage of interviews from 1993 and 1994 with the parents of the victims is hard and sobering – a strong reminder that the entire cause should be called the West Memphis Six… While the WM3 are often at the foreground of the attention focused on their quest for freedom and justice, many forget of the other three – the 3 young boys murdered. Outside of the documentary, one of the parents of the victims, Mark Byers, once dubbed it as “Freedom For Three, Justice For Six” – and I found those words resonating very strongly during these looks back with the parents during the times of the crime and the trials.

But as time has advanced, more evidence of the innocence of the WM3 has arisen. From DNA evidence, to documentation of juror misconduct, to the alleged involvement of one of the stepfathers of the dead boys in their murders, many have started to question whether or not the WM3 were actually guilty. Most notably among these are some of the parents, including Mark Byers and Pamela Hobbs. In the film, chills down my spine as Byers reads Damien’s mailed letter to him, after the father admitted he was wrong and now believes in the innocence of the men who had been imprisoned.

Mark Byers - West Memphis Three

This incident is extremely significant, for it ties together the portrait made of Mark Byers from the previous documentaries. Those who have seen these first movies may be surprised at Byers standing and position in this third chapter, but it is here in which Berlinger and Sinofsky have excelled: by pulling portions from the previous documentaries, they are able to present (in some instances) a “then and now” perspective, that also highlights the torture of time and of the longest wait imaginable.

Related to this is how they replayed the testimony of Dale Griffis, a so-called “professional” on matters pertaining to the occult, from the original trial – his maintained position on Satanism was what the prosecution based their case on for convicting. Despite the fact he was highlighted as a fraud by the defense, the West Memphis Three were imprisoned on the prosecution’s basis. The documentary does show Griffis in 2010, showing his age, but still determined to show himself as an expert on the Occult, also revealing he was contacted by West Memphis police about Damien Echols a year before the trial.

New to this particular film is the focus on the new evidence to prove the innocence of the WM3. For followers of the case, the rise of social media and YouTube has enabled them to see much of this previous footage before, but inside the context of the documentary, the presentation is especially compelling. In particular, the absence of any DNA belonging to the WM3 at the scene of the crime stands out the most – but what also stands out is the DNA that was discovered, belonging to stepfather of Stevie Branch, Terry Hobbs.

Hobbs is encompassed quite extensively during the course of the documentary. Since the news of his DNA being found, he has been accused publicly by many of perhaps being the actual murderer. He maintains his innocence of these assertions, though after Natalie Maines from the Dixie Chicks made a public statement on the issue, Terry Hobbs sued her for defamation. The case was thrown out, in Maines’ favor, but what resulted from it was much more considerable: Hobbs opened himself to questioning related to the murder of the three boys as a part of the proceedings.

West Memphis Three

The deposition material from these hearings is magnetic, and opens up many questions about Terry Hobbs. The filmmakers do not outright point to him as the killer; but the inclusion of this questioning even compiled with new discussions of him insisting he is innocent, still highlight him as what law enforcement officials might term as a “person of interest”. Questions still surround Terry Hobbs to this day.

The other jaw dropping element of the new evidence is the accusations of jury misconduct. There is much to the story, which is extremely detailed in the documentary, but glossing over the main points, it turns out that the jury foreman contacted an attorney involved with the court case, and considering evidence and information that should not have been used for any consideration by the jury. A written affidavit was made of the jury misconduct allegations, highlighting the foreman being certain that the three were guilty, influencing the jury decision by introducing Jessie Misskelley’s testimony that was NOT admitted to the Echols/Baldwin trial.

I could continue about other aspects of the case and the trials and the new evidence, but what really makes this film work so well, is the manner in which Berlinger and Sinofsky have tied the film together. While it is motivating to see the new components of the story being shown in the movie, the editing is what makes this documentary stand out from the other two – providing a lot of backstory and context, but connecting standout elements from that to the recent developments since those films. It also effectively shows how much toll time itself has taken on everyone involved, from the WM3 themselves, to their family members, to the family members of the victims, to those involved in the trials.

Another characteristic slightly different from the previous two documentaries is the inclusion of much more graphic footage. Clips previously unseen from the crime scene videos are shown, displaying the cold corpses of the victims, unclothed and lost to rigor mortis… it is completely shocking to see, and sets a lump in your throat from sadness, and churns your guts with absolute fury and anger towards whoever could have committed such an awful act on young innocent kids. It is dizzying and nauseating; but necessary for the context of the story. Despite this, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking heavily of the parents of the victims during these moments.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky stand with the West Memphis Three

The music in Purgatory is almost exclusively from Metallica, which is fitting. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were big fans and listeners of the band before they were convicted; and in fact it was a main point of the prosecution that this was a symptom of occultism! Since the first two documentaries, and the Metallica documentary also made by Berlinger and Sinofsky, Some Kind Of Monster, it’s believed the band have also become supporters of the West Memphis Three.

While the music is appropriate, the closing song was a major source of pain and annoyance to me. “The Day That Never Comes” from the band’s back-to-form Death Magnetic album, is fittingly used here – but for the purposes of the film it is inadequately mixed and mastered, peaking and overtaking the film’s closing moments and credits. Some fans might remember the “loudness accusations” of the album it came from – but believe me, this is so much shoddier.

On top of that, the song is poorly cut-up and re-edited to “fit” the closing credits, that it almost defeats the purpose for which it was used. There is much context behind including Metallica’s songs in these documentaries, and to see it used poorly in this case is very disappointing.

That aside, the Epilogue of Paradise Lost, following the release of the West Memphis Three in 2011 is gut-wrenching. I feel myself still conflicted over the decisions, but much more so (in an amplified sense) when viewing it in the context of the documentary. Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, entered the particularly rare Alford plea – a guilty plea that allows them to publicly maintain innocence. Mark Byers sums up my feelings on the decision the best in the documentary:

“This is not right, and the people of Arkansas need to stand up and raise hell, because three innocent men are going to have to claim today that they’re guilty for a crime they didn’t do, and that’s bullshit! They are innocent! They did not kill my son! And this is wrong, what the State of Arkansas is doing, to cover their ass… and I’m sick of it because the real killer is walking around free…”

Ultimately, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was a very satisfying view, and I’m sure WM3 followers will agree. Those new to the story will find it compelling, heart-wrenching, shocking, and an emotional roller coaster. It will open your eyes to how unsatisfactory the justice system actually is – but also makes you consider: how many others are locked up that may actually be innocent?

Overall Rating: 4½ out of 5

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