Friday, February 10, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory Movie Review

From left: Joe Berlinger; Jessie Misskelley, Jr.; Damien Echols; Jason Baldwin; Bruce Sinofsky at the film's premiere in NYC.
The third and most recent entry in the Paradise Lost documentary series, titled Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky has a much more focused plan of attack. Much more than its predecessors, it seems somehow more professional, more bona fide, which I suppose is a reflection of the fact that they’ve incorporated contemporary documentary film techniques to tell their story.

Because the case of the West Memphis Three and their conviction in 1994 for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys involves so much information and has such a varied cast of characters, that gives them a massive job for this final piece. That is, if it is actually the final piece, but more on that later. The movie’s narrative is organized into distinct chapters, the first of which is a condensed recap of everything that’s come before. If you’ve just watched the first two films in succession or have followed the case with studied interest, the prologue will be tedious. For those who are new to the story, it is informative if incomplete. Even each of the first two films is incomplete so there’s no way a 25 minute segment of a single film can accurately sum up all the pertinent information.

We know that three teenagers were convicted for the crimes despite professing their innocence. We know there is a wealth of evidence that wasn’t originally investigated thoroughly and new evidence that has come to light. We remember that John Mark Byers, stepfather to one of the murdered boys, was implicated by the teenagers, the filmmakers and by the national movement to free the three prisoners. And we certainly remember that Byers was a man who came across as basking in the spotlight of fame. Nothing he said ever had the ring of truth to it. It always felt staged, prepared and false.

Now, a decade after the second film, Byers seems more natural in presenting himself before the camera, although I still get the sense he’s parading a bit. The difference is that now he’s turned to side with the Free the West Memphis 3 movement based on new evidence that may help eliminate the teens as suspects. A hair found in the shoelaces used to tie one of the boys was determined that it belongs neither to any of the victims nor any of the defendants. It could – and that’s very important to remember even when Berlinger and Sinofsky perhaps don’t – COULD belong to Terry Hobbs, stepfather to another of the three victims. A forensic scientist says it could belong to 1.5 percent of the population at large, among them is Hobbs. So now the focus of the defense and the movement has shifted its gaze toward Hobbs.

By most accounts, Hobbs is no saint. He’s had trouble with the law including domestic abuse and shooting his brother-in-law during an altercation following such abuse. And according to witnesses who were never interviewed by investigating police, he was the last to see the boys alive, although he denies this. Most experts will probably tell you that eyewitness testimony 18 years after the fact is about as unreliable as it gets. No bother, as the Movement needs a scapegoat.

I’m as convinced as anyone that the three defendants are not guilty – or at least that there simply isn’t enough evidence to convict them. I don’t believe Jessie Misskelley’s coerced confession for one moment. Without that confession, it’s never made clear in any of these documentaries how the prosecution connects the murders in any way to Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. And here lies a major problem in the trial of Echols and Baldwin. The confession was inadmissible as Misskelley refused to testify, even though he could have gotten a lighter sentence. Yet there is some evidence of jury misconduct in which they considered the confession as a piece of evidence to convict. This is a major, I mean MAJOR miscarriage of justice in my opinion. But my problem with the Movement generally, and with these filmmakers specifically, is that they have a strong enough case to get the three men out of prison without pointing fingers at other people who are just as likely to be innocent.

In the first decade of the millennium, celebrities began to join the cause and Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks made some damning accusations toward Hobbs. He sued for defamation thus opening himself up to questioning under oath about the murders. Here is where he gets caught in some erroneous statements. This side plot to me is secondary and almost inconsequential.

To me the most interesting parts of this documentary are the interviews with the three defendants, now grown men with very interesting perspectives on their situations. Damien was always the most articulate of the three and he still is. The way he has kept himself sane through 18 years on death row demonstrates remarkable will.

Berlinger and Sinofsky had expected to release this film in September. But a sudden and surprising plea deal was struck in August, forcing them to add an epilogue and delay the film’s release. Finally having a new judge assigned to the case (the original trial judge heard all the appeals for a new trial over the years), the three men were granted an evidentiary hearing for December of last year. Then suddenly they took Alford plea bargains. This is a guilty plea that allows the defendants to assert their innocence for the record. They were sentenced to time served and released. On the books, they are guilty murderers, but in reality they are now free men who are likely to continue from outside prison to get their convictions overturned.

Essentially, the State recognized that they were most likely going to be granted a new trial and they didn’t feel they had sufficient evidence to convict them again. In the interest of everyone involved, they offered the plea deals so the three would not have to spend more time languishing in prison. As Baldwin states, this is not justice. He was reluctant to plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit, but did so for Echols’ sake, who would have been executed if they were found guilty again.

It occurs to me that I’ve said a lot more about the facts of the case than about the documentary that presents them. I think that’s because Berlinger and Sinofsky have put together a compelling portrait over the last 17 years of all that has happened. They present a convincing case for the injustice of it all. I’m not personally 100 percent convinced that the West Memphis 3 are innocent, but these movies have certainly convinced me that there was not sufficient evidence to put them away for life and to kill one of them. For that, I think these filmmakers have done an astounding thing. Without the first documentary in the series there never would have been such a strong public movement which ultimately helped set them free.

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