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The Paradise Lost Trilogy

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Nov 27, 2012
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In 1993, three young boys were found dead in the woods near West Memphis, Arkansas. A month later, the local police arrested three teenagers: Damien Echols, then 18; Jessie Misskelley, then 17; and Jason Baldwin, then 16. The arrests followed a confession obtained by police in the course of interrogating Misskelley, who described chasing and restraining one of the victims and claimed to have seen the other alleged perpetrators sexually abusing the victims.

From the start, the crime was characterized as a Satanic rite, with Echols -- who wore black, dabbled in non-Christian faith traditions, and listened to heavy metal music -- pegged as the ringleader. When documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky trained their lens on the investigation and the trial, it was with a presumption of guilt on the part of the accused; but as the camera rolled and the trial progressed, the filmmakers realized that the case was extremely flawed, relying on the insistent depiction of Echols and his friends as devil worshippers instead of hard evidence. (Echols, a smart kid and now a smart adult, did himself few favors when he ruminated on his newfound infamy in the first film, almost seeming to take pride in being seen as a "boogeyman.")

Misskelley’s confession was the most damning, but also the most suspect, piece of evidence against the three. Expert witnesses pointed out that the statement extracted from Misskelley featured the earmarks of a false confession. The mildly retarded young man had been detained and isolated for several days, and the police had asked him leading questions, sometimes even obviously signaling the ways in which they wanted him to change his story to better fit what they hoped to hear. Misskelley, with an IQ of 72, was particularly vulnerable to such tactics.

Despite the utter lack of any physical evidence linking them to the crime, the three were convicted, with Echols receiving the death sentence. But the resulting documentary, titled "Paradise Lost" and aired on HBO, raised so many questions that a national network of supporters for the "West Memphis Three," as the convicted teens became known, sprang up.

The sequel to the original documentary, "Paradise Lot 2: Revelations" picked up the thread five years later, as Echols and the other mounted an appeal. Every attempt at appeal was blocked by the same judge who had presided over the original case, and this attempt similarly failed, but the second film examined fresh questions, including the possibility that one of the victims’ own stepfathers had been the killer. The sequel also focused on the activists who kept up a spirited defense of the three teens.

The third film, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" documented the drama as it came to its conclusion last year, when the three young men -- by now in their mid-30s -- entered "Alford pleas." That is to say, they maintained their innocence even as they pled guilty, in exchange for being let out of prison. This maneuver shielded the state against what might have been an enormously expensive civil suit, but it did not legally exonerate the accused.

Along the way, with the advent of DNA-based evidence testing, the always-weak case against the three turned out to be more hollow than ever; also, with the passage of time, some perspective was now possible on the hysteria surrounding the idea of young "devil worshippers" preying on communities. Perhaps most shocking of all was the revelation that a year before the killings, Echols had already been pegged as a Satanist and identified as a threat -- a development that cast the questioning of Misskelley in a sinister new light.

This four-disc DVD set includes the complete trilogy, plus a wealth of special features, including interviews and deleted scenes that bring to light even stranger and more outrageous aspects of the case. The full picture is a rich, explosive, and unflattering picture of law enforcement corruption and ineptitude, complete with hints of witness tampering, jury misconduct, and selective focus on evidence to the exclusion of exculpatory (and critical) testimony and evidence.

This story would make for a thrilling feature film, or perhaps a series of features similar to the British "Red Riding" trilogy (also centered around a child murder). Until someone undertakes that project, the "Paradise Lost" trilogy stands as a compelling real-life drama and a call to reform a deeply flawed, perhaps even criminally corrupt, justice system.

Special Features include:
- Video Excerpts of Damien Echols’ trial testimony
- Press Day Panel Discussion
- Interview with filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
- Deleted scenes and "lost" footage
- Jason Baldwin’s first interview after his release from prison

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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