[12 January 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Time is very, very strange in here. I’m surprised by things sometimes, I guess, like being told I have arthritis or looking in the mirror and seeing that my hairline is receding.
What greater gift to a filmmaker than to see their work actually having real world impact?
“This is not right and the people of Arkansas are gonna have to stand up and raise hell,” announces John Mark Byers near the end of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. He’s standing outside a courthouse in Jonesboro, Arkansas, just after Circuit Court Judge David Lester has released the West Memphis Three. They’ve been imprisoned since 1994 for the murder of three eight-year-old boys, including Byers’ stepson, Chris. For nearly two decades, Byers had raged against the convicted killers—Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley—but in the footage from August 2011, he’s raging against the justice system. “Three innocent men,” he bellows, “are gonna have to claim today that they’re guilty for a crime they didn’t know and that’s bullshit. They’re innocent, they did not kill my son. And this is wrong, what the state of Arkansas is doing to cover their ass.”
In this moment, Byers appears as passionate and as outsized as he does throughout Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s three films on the WM3. His upset this time has to do with the agreement reached by the West Memphis Three and the state of Arkansas, an Alford plea by which the defendants plead guilty but assert their innocence. In exchange for having their original sentences (life for Misskelley and Baldwin, death for Echols) educed to time served, the three agreed not to sue the state.
As he has come to believe the three to be innocent, Byers believes the state has let the killer of his son get away. He’s come a long way over the course of the cases and the films: indeed, in his first appearances in 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, recalled here in a series of scenes that serve as flashbacks, he proclaims the WM3 to be Satanists, dramatizing his hope that they’ll “burn in hell,” by standing over a fire he’s set at the place where the bodies were found.
What’s striking about these flashbacks—footage from the 1996 film, the 2000 film (Paradise Lost 2: Revelations), and some extra footage not included in either—is that they are at once personal and collective. Echols and his fellow inmates speak with the filmmakers repeatedly, telling their stories, revealing their changing self-conceptions. And because you’ve seen some of these images before, because they are now recognizable—much like their families and the victims’ families—you feel like you know what you’re seeing, you’re reminded of what you’ve seen before and can project developments in motivation and effect. The stories of the West Memphis Three, in other words, are not theirs alone, as they have shared them with Berlinger and Sinofsky, and the rest of us, for so long.
Byers and other interviewees act out their awareness of the camera, even as the film underlines its role in the case. This new film, premiering on HBO 12 January, opens with a local TV report from 1994, asserting, “The crew behind one camera isn’t chasing a story. They’re creating a comment on society.” Being from New York, Berlinger and Sinofsky were plainly outsiders to the community: the TV report says they “spent eight months getting to intimately know the people involved in the case,” relatives of the three victims (Chris, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore, all remembered in this film’s dedication) and also the three suspects. They also spent long hours interviewing authorities, police officers and lawyers, as well as in the courtroom, recording the proceedings.
The films’ “comment on society” is complicated, and evolves over time (the trilogy of documentaries has been honored with Cinema Eye’s Hell Yeah Award on 11 January, celebrating the Intersection of Great Nonfiction Filmmaking Art and Measurable Real World Impact). The most insistent and apparent point has to do with the flaws in the policing and the resulting legal cases (including apparent juror misconduct). But other questions come up as well, concerning the prejudice against the teenagers who wore black clothes and listened to rock music back in the ‘90s, the fear engendered by tabloidish, under-researched media coverage, and the seeming inability of the legal system to check itself, to admit mistakes or to process new evidence. This despite Echols’ appeals following a 2007 state statute that permitted post-conviction testing of DNA evidence due to technological advances made since 1994.
It’s fair to say that Byers embodies all of these aspects to some degree—until he doesn’t. A couple of new scenes indicate that Byers is not only repentant but also reborn into a new activist role. One sequence begins outside his tiny home, snow thawing—drip drip drip—as he sits inside, his moppy white dog nearby. “The question is,”” he begins, “Why am I so different now than years back?” Coming to deal with things, coming to deal with that I know I did all I could to keep Christopher safe, that it wasn’t my fault. I know I wasn’t a perfect dad, but I did the best I could.” Uttered by the same man who shot pumpkins as stand-ins for the boys he wanted dead in the first film, such insight is certainly moving. The camera cuts to a close-up of his cigarette. “I’m just a country boy,” he adds, “That you kill my son, you made me madder than hell and I wanted to kick somebody’s ass.”
Once called a suspect himself, following an odd moment in the first film when he gave the filmmakers—whom he apparently genuinely liked—a hunting knife with specks of blood on it (a knife the filmmakers pondered and then handed over to the police, as they note in that film), Byers now believes another victim’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, is the killer. He makes this argument vividly, pulling a large handmade placard from the back of his vehicle, after which he stands on the street and points out the “pros” and “cons” he’s found, regarding Hobbs as suspect. It’s a remarkable moment—as dramatically performative as the fire or the pumpkin shooting or the church sermonizing he did previously. He’s as earnest and as convinced now as he was then.
Opposed to Byers now are other, adamant representatives of the “system,” such as it is. Purgatory revisits the “occult expert” Dale W. Griffis, who appears first in the 1994 courtroom, noting that “books on occultism” refer to the removal of sexual organs (as was apparently done to Chris Byers) and also that “I have personally observed people wearing black fingernails, having their hair painted black, wearing black t-shirts.” Griffis also speaks with the filmmakers in 2010, looking through his file drawer full of documents on occultism. Griffis finds a videotape of his appearance on an especially sensationalistic 20/20 episode on Satanism in 1988, apparently believing even now that this constitutes proof of his authority in the field.
Griffis could never have testified if not for the imprimatur of the original trial judge, David Burnett, who ruled in 1994 that the witness need not have taken classes or earned a degree in order to provide credible testimony. Burnett appears repeatedly in courtroom footage in all three films: here he also appears in a brief interview, asserting, “In my mind, there’s no question that all three received a fair trial.” He appears incapable of contemplating what’s actually happened—the DNA evidence, the testimonies of forensics and other experts, much of it reported at a news conference back in 2007.
As much as Purgatory attends to the legal and evidence issues, the ongoing corruption and ignorance of the Arkansas authorities, it also underscores the damage done to Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley. Interviews with all three—and Echols’ wife Lorri Davis, who met and married him while he was on death row—feature look-backs on their experiences, and contemplations on the broader world. Damien, in 2009, reflects on his own ignorance at the time of the trials (he and Jason were tried together, Jessie was tried separately). “I always felt, I knew I didn’t do it, so therefore it’s impossible for them to prove you’ve done something you haven’t done, with no evidence, just a bunch of rumors ghost stories and smoke screens,” he says. “I didn’t think there was any way in hell they were gonna be able to get away with that.”
They did, of course. And if not for the work of Berlinger and Sinofsky, Damien says, “These people would have murdered me, swept this under the rug, and I wouldn’t be anything but a memory right now.” Because the films drew attention to the case, because Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines and Johnny Depp made public statements as to problems with the convictions, the West Memphis Three had a chance that most convicted murderers and most death row inmates never have. And yet, as sensational and strange as journey has been—and will continue to be, as Peter Jackson, who’s produced yet another documentary on the case, means to help Echols seek a pardon—Purgatory is most affecting in its most intimate performances.
That is, a hallmark of all three films has been their understanding and embrace of subjects’ self-presentations. As much as the movies have commented on “society,” they also contemplate how individuals—Damien Echols or Jason Baldwin or Jon Mark Byers—see themselves, as parts of “society,” as outcasts and victims, as survivors, generous, self-aware, and compassionate.