[25 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Is Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills now the most important documentary ever made? After the events of 19 August, 2011, it would sure seem to be. Like Errol Morris’ amazing The Thin Blue Line, it is a movie that managed to actually change the course of supposedly settled events, to draw censure and examination of its subject and, apparently, right a grievous wrong. Many are the directors who dream of turning their subject into a substantive cause celeb, to make a difference and mark the way of history instead of merely following it - and in the case of three teens in Arkansas, it seems like a well made motion picture (or series of same) has done just that.
In 1996, when filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky decided to follow-up their seminal courtroom critique Brother’s Keeper with another shot at a localized law system gone out of whack, they couldn’t have imagined that, 15 years later, they’d be back in a West Memphis courtroom watching defendants Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin walk free. Not exonerated, but free. Yes, there was/is a catch - the once boys, now men, had to plea to charges of murder - but under an unique law in the state, the plea would also allow them to remain ‘innocent.’ As a result, a fact film franchise made about a miscarriage of justice ended on one of those weird legal loopholes that all good fictional genre stories rely on.
It only seems fitting that a case where nothing was crystal clear would conclude within a similarly compelling cloud. As celebrities and supporters have rallied around the trio, so have those who are convinced the prosecutors got the right guys. There is no denying that no one really wins here. The families of the victims can’t feel relieved. While ‘convicted’ of murder, Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin are still considered blameless. That means one or two things: (1) fame and filmmaker outcry managed to free a group of rightfully convicted killers or (2) truly innocent men have to wear the tag of presumed ‘child murderer’ on their resume for the rest of their life. As for the defendants, they are free after 18 years of jail - and as many years of arguing their cause. Yet outside a life somewhere secluded, they are marked and more than likely unable to live viable, fruitful existences.
That’s because, beyond our favorite athletes or celebrated stars, society doesn’t really believe in second chances. They like when wrongs are righted and never seem to mind when even the most hideous acts (rape, animal cruelty) are covered by a slap on the wrist and a visit to rehab. For their part, Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin have a certain amount of fame, and with high profile pals and thousands of grassroots (read: web-based) supporters, they can move forward and contribute. But as we have seen time and time again, even the most well watched scenario can quickly spiral out of control. These men were mere adolescents when they ended up in jail. Now, nearly two decades later, they come back to a place that knows them, but may not want to wholly help them.
Even with new DNA evidence more or less vindicating them, we exist on a planet in love with lingering doubts. Berlinger and Sinofsky raised many of them in their two efforts - the first film was followed up with a supplemental screed, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations - and while never really pinpointing a possible alternative lead, all roads seem to suggest the alleged involvement of one Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the victims. With strong community support for the families and a still simmering suspicion over the whole “satanic” aspect of the case, one this was obvious - Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin would probably never get a new trial, and if they did, almost two decades of publicity would significantly taint any jury pool.
That means we are left with a gem of a mystery dulled by the desire to cut losses and put truth aside. Both Paradise Lost and Revelations make it fairly clear that, outside another subpar performance by the people of the Great State of Arkansas, our trio would probably have won. Reasonable doubt definitely exists. It’s only because of Damien’s debilitating health issues and his seat on Death Row that time became of the essence. By making the deal under this unique law, the others could save their friend, but in doing so, they gave up certain rights - like the right to be free from a felony charge, the right to whatever privileges a lack of a conviction warrants in the world, and most importantly, the right to sue.
One hopes that the final film in the Paradise trilogy (entitled Purgatory) investigates the State’s desire to avoid their own liability. In general, officials are not culpable for merely doing their job. If a prosecutor thinks he or she can win a conviction, you can’t make them civilly responsible when they bring a case to trial. No, Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin would probably have to prove a motive so egregious and backroom maneuvering so malevolent that all immunities are considered null and void. It’s an advisedly uphill battle, but with all the cogs in place for a well honed legal machine to take over, the men may have a chance.
All of which goes back to the founding proposition. Without Berlinger and Sinofsky, without the outrage caused by the Paradise Lost films and the questions they continue to raise, a group of unjustly accused and falsely imprisoned citizens of these United States of America would still be rotting in an Arkansas prison. Few films in modern history can claim an outcome so completely correct and yet so simultaneously aggravating. If we believe in the reporting, if we believe in the significant doubts raised, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were nowhere near that ravine on the day when those young boys were tortured and killed. Whoever was deserves their day of reckoning. Until then, there’s as much paradise crossed as paradise found for all involved - including the filmmakers responsible for it all.