I finally got around to seeing this 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and I haven’t been able to think of much else since.
In 1993 three eight-year-old boys – Chris Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch – were found mutilated and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teens were arrested shortly after and they are known as the “West Mephis Three”. Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were convicted in 1994 of murdering the boys, and as you will see from the documentary footage that covers the trial, the evidence was very shaky.
The arrest of the three was prompted by the statement of Misskelley, an intellectually disabled youth whose confession was allegedly coerced.
This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky started the movement to free the “West Memphis Three” and it had the support – both vocal and financial – of celebrities including Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and director Peter Jackson.
A website was created called wm3.org that rallied support and finances for a defence fund for the trio.
This documentary is gripping and disturbing. A WARNING – there is graphic crime scene footage at the beginning that shows the bodies of the dead little boys (there is a warning at the start of the doco but I wasn’t quite prepared for the sight of the boys).
This doco is also a statement of life in a small Arkansas town. The boys all came from low socio-economic backgrounds. The parents of the murdered boys and the families of the accused all feature prominently and it is painful to watch their anger, disbelief and handling by the media. It is obvious too from the testimonies of law enforcement in the case that the investigation was shabby. I mean, I’m no expert but it appeared that the small town cop stereotype was really true in this case. In one shocking moment, a detective testified that he lost blood scrapings before they could be sent for testing – these came from a black man who was seen dishevelled and covered in blood at a local restaurant on the evening the boys went missing.
The documentary ends with Echols and Baldwin being taken to prison – Echols was sentenced to death and Baldwin, life. Misskelley was tried separately and received life plus 40 years and did not testify at the trial of his friends.
It is a terrifying story.
Two more documentaries followed with the third installment Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a further investigation into the case. It ends with the three men being released after almost 20 years in prison because DNA evidence (testing was financed by the defence fund), which indicated they may be innocent.