Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations Movie Review

John Mark Byers (right) gives an interview on local TV news.
The impression I got from Paradise Lost, Joe Berlinger’s and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary that focused on the trials of the West Memphis Three and the crimes they were convicted of committing, was that their intent was to present an objective portrait of those events. Five years later they returned to follow up and explore new evidence and accusations to make Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, a documentary that is much more unabashed in its partisan view of the crime, investigation and trial.

We remember from the first film that victim Chris Byers’ stepfather John Mark Byers occasionally ranted and raved like a fire and brimstone preacher and at the end there was some speculation that he may have been involved in the deaths of the three boys because of a knife he gave the filmmakers as a gift that turned out to have some blood on it. His stories about how blood might have gotten on that knife were often inconsistent. Now, after the death of his wife Melissa – Chris’s mother – in 1996 with the medical examiner listing cause of death as undetermined, more suspicion has cropped up around him. It doesn’t help that he and Melissa were accused of felony theft prior to her death and that John has had other troubles with the law. The list of people who don’t want him living in their neighborhood continues to grow.

The three boys who were convicted are all interviewed again, now in their early 20s. Damien Echols spends the most time on camera as the documentary is ostensibly there for the appeals process in the Arkansas State Supreme Court. Jessie Misskelley appears briefly and is obviously older and more articulate. The same is true of Jason Baldwin, little more than a boy in the first film, he’s now becoming a man. He’s able to speak more clearly about his situation. Damien Echols, the most intelligent and articulate of the three has grown more mature, eschewing his teenage fascination with the Goth look and focused on getting people to believe his story.

Interestingly, John Byers is the only parent of the three victims who agreed to participate in this sequel and he steals the show. He is ubiquitous in the film, appearing over and over in stunning displays of theatricality. All of his speeches reek of falsehood and play acting. When he revisits the crime scene and stages a symbolic visitation of the graves of the three convicted murderers the effect is not that we are witnessing a distraught parent exorcising personal demons, but of a madman playing up for the cameras as he lights the grass on fire and stomps around shouting about them burning in the fires of hell.

The third major element that plays a role in this sequel is the movement of people from all over the country to free the West Memphis Three. They gather in a meeting with a local journalist to discuss how they all came to be a part of this movement. What they seem to share in common is that they all felt like outsiders when they were teenagers and saw the first documentary and saw immediately that something was wrong and justice was not served. Their movement has latched onto Byers as an alternative suspect and in one uncomfortable and rather inappropriate exchange, they all but accuse him directly to his face of having committed the crimes, asking him why he hasn’t submitted himself for bite impressions and a polygraph.

Well, he does submit to a polygraph – on camera no less. He passes it. But Berlinger and Sinofsky throw in a title card that lists several prescription medications, including Zoloft, that he’s on during the test. What possible reason could they have for giving us that information except to suggest that somehow they’ve rendered him capable of beating the polygraph? Yet they don’t provide any medical expert to say that those drugs can have an effect on the physiological responses measured in such a test. The reason for the demand for bite impressions is because of new evidence that says the body of Chris Byers had bite marks. Jessie Misskelley’s defense attorney, who has continued to work on the case pro bono, brings in a crime scene forensic scientist who refutes most of what the prosecution originally asserted. They claimed those marks were left by a belt buckle. Bite impressions done after the convictions allegedly eliminate the three young men as suspects. The problem with John Byers’ giving impressions is that he now wears dentures, the story for which changes periodically – first he says he lost them in a bar fight then he claims it was a side effect of a medication he was taking (it turns out there is no such known side effect for that medicine). He also changes his story of when he lost his teeth. First it was several years after the murders – in 1997. Then he claims it happened before the murders. This is certainly suspicious behavior, but not enough in my opinion to get a retrial.

I find this documentary a little bit dangerous and incredibly irresponsible in the way it tosses unfounded accusations around concerning Byers’ guilt. There is nothing but circumstantial evidence pointing to him and what the documentary never reveals is that he was questioned by investigators following the murders and his alibi was supported by several people. That said, I think Byers has a great love for the spotlight and his choosing to take part in this film reflects that. All his theatricality doesn’t seem to me to be an attempt to cover up wrongdoing, but something more like childish attention seeking. The way so many people have focused on Byers as the real killer is not any different than how they came to so easily believe that some boys who listen to heavy metal were guilty. Byers is a freak to them. He’s eccentric, he sports odd-looking facial hair occasionally. Isn’t pointing the finger at him for those reasons exactly the same as suspecting teenagers who don’t fit the social norms of their school?

In the end Echols is denied a retrial on appeal and the final titles inform us he could be executed as early as the following year. Of course we know now that never happened. I feel the filmmakers did Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley a disservice by focusing so much energy on making Byers look bad. It gives the impression that they’re just trying to cast doubt on the convictions using any means possible. A more focused and poignant film would have stuck with the holes in the prosecution’s case, of which it’s clear there were many.

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