Friday, January 13, 2012

Movie Review: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory *** ½
Directed by: Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky.

The story of the West Memphis Three – Damien Echols, Jessie Miskelly and James Baldwin – finally had a happy ending on August 19, 2011 when the three men, now in their 30s, were released from prison following an plea agreement related to the 1994 case that sentenced Misskelly and Baldwin to prison for life and Echols to death row for murdering three 8 year boys. When documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky first went to West Memphis to document the trial and interview all involved, they thought they’d be making a documentary about how three heavy metal obsessed teenagers turned violent and murdered three innocent children, perhaps in a Satanic ritual. What they found instead was much more disturbing. The police, having no leads and no evidence, ended up focusing on Echols because he was known around town as “weird”. He dressed all in black, painted his fingernails and in a country music town, loved heavy metal music. They expanded their questioning to his friends, and eventually got Jesse Misskelly, who is mildly mentally handicapped, to confess to the murders after over 12 hours of questioning – only 40 minutes or so that was actually recorded. It doesn’t matter that even in the part that was taped, there was massive inaccuracies in Miss Kelly’s story – saying for example they abducted the boys at 9 in the morning, when really they didn’t go missing until after 7 at night, or saying that Echols and Baldwin had raped the boys first, although there was no evidence of that on the boys bodies. There was really no evidence of any kind – the boys were found naked and bound at the bottom of a river, and all blood or DNA evidence was washed away. Miskelly was convicted at his separate trial first, based on his confession that he recanted. But since he refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin, the confession wasn’t even admissible in their trials. But it didn’t matter – the media attention for the case had been so widespread, including the details of the confession (aside for the inaccuracies) that jurors went in with their minds made up – and Echols and Baldwin were also convicted.

The first Paradise Lost movie was released in 1996 on HBO, and the resulting controversy was nationwide. People were outraged, and the West Memphis Three had a large number of new followers and donors to their legal defense team, who filed appeal after appeal. But all appeals had to go through the same judge who tried the case, and he wasn’t having any of it. He rejected appeal after appeal, despite the mounting evidence of the teenager’s innocence. The filmmakers made Paradise Lost 2 in 2000, and showed the defendants as changed young men from the years behind bars, and raise more questions about their guilt. Now 10 years later, they are back with Paradise Lost 3, which details everything the new defense lawyers have uncovered, for their appeals. The version that I saw, at the Toronto Film Festival, is not the final version. The filmmakers finished it on August 15, just four days before the young men were released. They are adding footage of that to the end of this movie, in time for the New York Film Festival, but weren’t able to have it edited in time for TIFF.

Paradise Lost 3 has some shocking moments in it – I will never be able to get the image of the murdered boys out of my head, but nothing shocked me as much as the fact that John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims, who in previous films had gone off on more than one rant about how evil the killers were, having mock funerals for them, shooting fake bodies of them he made and declaring they were going to burn forever in hellfire, admitting that he was wrong. He looked at the new evidence, and sees the boys were innocent. He is still a fascinating character in this movie, but time has dampened him. He’s not even the most logical counter-suspect anymore – but another of the boy’s stepfathers is.

Few films can actually claim to have saved someone’s life, but the Paradise Lost films can. Echols thanks the filmmakers on camera in this film, saying that if they weren’t there right from the beginning to document the case and bring it national prominence, then he is convinced the State would have executed him by now. He’s not wrong. Echols has changed a lot over the years – no longer the defiant, bratty but extremely intelligent teenager who said in the first film that he would remembered forever as a boogeyman, even though he was innocent. He seems calm, his hairline is receding, and the son he had who was just a baby when he was put away is now almost as old as he was. Jason Baldwin has gone from the baby faced, soft spoken young man he was, into a balding, larger man in his in 30s. And Miskelly still seems very similar to how he was, but he too has aged. A lot can happen to a person over the years – to these three more than most.

I have no idea what Echols, Baldwin and Miskelly will do with the rest of their lives now that they are out of jail. I guess they could do anything they want. Their plea agreement allowed them to “maintain their innocence, but admit the prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them” – probably a way for the State to Protect themselves for a lawsuit. But that doesn’t really matter – after spending more than half their lives in jail, they are now free.

But who really did kill those three young boys? I doubt it’s a question we’ll ever have an answer to. The West Memphis police are not about to reopen the case, and the DA won’t want to try anyone even if they do find someone. That would be to admit that they were wrong. And one thing we’ve learned from the Paradise Lost trilogy is how anyone in power refuses to admit when they’ve made a mistake. Those three murdered children deserve better than that.

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