Sunday, February 5, 2012

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills Movie Review

Damien Echols waived his 5th Amendment rights and, perhaps mistakenly, took the stand.
The so-called West Memphis Three have become very well known in recent years, garnering a large following on Facebook and other Internet outlets. I’d heard the phrase and read passing headlines related to the case, but knew nothing about the crimes that three men from Arkansas were convicted of and for which they spent 18 years in prison. I saw the news flashes last year when they were released after signing an Alford plea deal in which they maintained innocence for their crimes but admitted that the prosecution had sufficient evidence to convict – a bizarre facet of the legal system if ever there was one. And so after nearly two decades in prison (they were teenagers when convicted) and long-standing public campaigns demanding reviews of the evidence, appeals and retrials, the West Memphis Three went free.

The three accused are Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin. Informational inter-titles inform us that Jessie has an IQ of 72, he was interrogated for 12 hours by police without any legal representation or family present, and he eventually recorded his confession in which he implicated the other two boys. Only the last 45 minutes of the interview were recorded on tape. Damien and Jason are good friends drawn together by their affinity for heavy metal music – Metallica in particular, though Damien also lists U2 as one of his preferred groups among such heavy metal pillars as Megadeath and Slayer. Damien is known for dressing in black, wearing his hair colored jet black and having a curiosity about the occult and alternative religion that frankly doesn’t strike me as all that odd for a teenager. He is well-spoken and strikes me as one of the most intelligent people interviewed in the film. Jason comes across as a scared little kid. He is small and scrawny and doesn’t say much. The film, and to some extent Jason’s lawyer, makes it appear as if he was along for the ride with Damien. The connection between Jessie and the other two is not made clear apart from the fact that he named them in his confession. Were all three friends? Did he randomly identify them? This is one of the film’s shortcomings in that I didn’t understand why Jessie named these two particular individuals.

The crimes for which they were convicted are among the most horrific imaginable. To know absolutely nothing of the case and walk into Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills is shocking, to put it mildly. The HBO documentary from 1996, the first of three documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky on the subject (the most recent of which has just been nominated for the Documentary Feature Academy Award), opens with police video footage of the crime scene. We see the naked bodies of three 8-year-old boys lying in a ditch in a wooded area, detectives surveying the scene, a small creek gently flowing past. If we saw these images in a work of fiction, most people would have to turn away. The realization that these are real boys, savagely murdered at such young and innocent ages, is revolting. From the outset the film throws us into the throes of the crime and forces us to confront the inescapable emotional aspects therein.

Emotions are a large part of what Berlinger and Sinofsky focus on in their film. Yes, most of the major facts are covered, but we rarely hear the documentarians’ voices. They turn the camera on their subjects, which include the families of the victims and the accused as well as the accused themselves and the investigative officers and lawyers on the case. It is an honest attempt to capture the full breadth of horror imposed by these events from the perspective of parents who lost their young children and from parents and siblings and girlfriends who were on the brink of losing theirs to life imprisonment.

That the three may have been guilty is of little consequence to their families. Your blood is your blood, says Jessie’s father, who insists he will continue to help him out with money and whatnot if he’s convicted and sent to prison. Jessie Sr.’s girlfriend is less forgiving, insisting that if the boy is guilty she will cut him off completely. We see this is a bone of contention between them. The families of Jason and Damien are devastated, horrified at what it will mean for if they are convicted.

By contrast the families of two of the murdered boys (Stevie Branch and Chris Byers) come across as callous and angry. I can’t even imagine what these people had to go through emotionally, but I was surprised by the lack of tears on their part. Their on camera interviews show them as vengeful and full of vitriol, invoking wrath of God fury. They talk about wanting to tear the skin off the face of the accused, wanting to shoot them, wanting them dead. These are absolutely reasonable emotions to feel, but I kept waiting for the tears, the mournful professions of how sweet their boys were. The parents of Michael Moore break down talking about their son. They focus on the boy more than the defendants.

The purpose of the documentary, much more than most contemporary popular docs, is to examine an issue as objectively as possible. There is no editorializing. Berlinger and Sinofsky are there to follow the trials (Jessie got a separate trial because of his confession), covering a period of approximately two months a little less than a year after the murders. What becomes clear through the evidence presented in the trials and from the on camera interviews with the three suspects is that there are enough lingering doubts that if I were on those juries I could not have voted guilty.

For one thing, most of the emotional rage directed at the suspects comes in the form of religious fervor. The two characters that stand out most are Damien and John Mark Byers, stepfather to the murdered Chris Byers. When Byers visits the crime scene with the documentarians he proselytizes like a fire and brimstone preacher. Most of his speeches come from the heart of an Evangelical. Similar manners of speaking are used by all the families of the victims. This is a crucial point to focus on because Damien and Jason were convicted partially based on the belief that they were Satan worshippers.

Any thinking person has to look at this ‘evidence’ and stare aghast as people accuse them of being freaks because of their fashion style. This is the same kind of fear that was endemic in Littleton, Colorado, for example when it came to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two youths who shot up their classmates and teachers after enduring bullies who picked on them for wearing black trenchcoats. Harris and Klebold were obviously guilty, but I can’t help drawing a comparison between misunderstood teenagers who don’t seem to fit in and a community that insists on labeling them as outside the mainstream of society, as if so called normal people can’t possibly commit atrocious acts of violence.

In the case of the residents of West Memphis, Arkansas, it’s not just that social outcasts who listen to strange music and read alternative books are capable of doing evil, but they must also be in league with Satan and so the prosecution spins a fantastic tale of Satanic worship, brings in an expert on paganism who testifies that human sacrifice is a hallmark of their kind and the younger the blood the better. The prosecution also brings up the fact that Damien changed his name from his birth name Michael and insinuates that it was in honor of the evil child in The Omen. At first I told myself that these ridiculous beliefs could only rear their heads in court in the South or the Midwest. I comforted myself thinking of West Memphis as a world apart from where I grew up on Long Island until I remembered that my hometown received similar national attention only ten years earlier when one teen was murdered by a trio of others in what was dubbed a Satanic ritual killing. The suspect was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt at the time of his arrest.

It’s hard to know what to think of the material in Paradise Lost. The way the facts are presented I believe there was reason to seriously doubt the guilt of the three suspects even in 1994, although I think the defense gets a little desperate in alternative theories, one of which is that Byers committed the crimes. The details that led to this suspicion are hazy and suspect. Another theory mentioned on Wikipedia but only obliquely referenced in the film concerns a bloody and agitated man in the restroom at a local fast food restaurant only a mile from the crime scene. The investigation of this individual comes across as amateurish. He disappeared from the restaurant before police arrived.

Knowing all that has come out in the intervening years deepens the experience of watching this film. We know that the three boys we’re watching will have their lives altered forever after spending 18 years in prison – and they’re most likely innocent. I look forward to watching the next two parts to see how these boys grow into men and approach their lives as condemned prisoners.

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