Was This Justice? ‘The Paradise Lost Trilogy: Collector’s Edition’

“Just look at the freaks. Just look at ’em.”

– Pam Hobbs, mother of murder victim Stevie Branch

On 6 May 1993, the bodies of three young boys were found near a muddy creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. The brutal murder of the three boys outraged the conservative West Memphis community and made headlines throughout the South and Midwest. In fact, the murders garnered so much media attention that they would remain on the minds of individuals around the world—not because of the three boys who were murdered, but because of the three young men who were convicted in 1993 and 1994 for their murders.

Under intense media and public pressure, the West Memphis police department arrested teens Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin for the murders of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. The resulting trial would go down in American legal history thanks to a documentary shot by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for HBO called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

The first Paradise Lost documentary, released in 1996, was followed by two sequels, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011). The three landmark documentaries have now been released by Docurama as the Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector’s Edition DVD set. Offering more than seven hours of documentary footage and extras, the Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector’s Edition is the definitive chronicle of the trial and subsequent legal struggles of Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin, popularly known as the West Memphis Three (WM3).

Docurama’s DVD set includes all three documentaries with their original special features repackaged alongside a bonus materials disc. The set also includes a 20-page booklet of original photographs with annotations by Joe Berlinger. The three documentaries are incredibly powerful, in part thanks to their consistent shooting and styling. Berlinger and Sinofsky incorporate their own original footage, as well as footage from local and national newscasts, to construct the story of the three murdered boys and the three accused killers. Songs by Metallica are used throughout all three documentaries in accordance with the heavy metal-Satanism-ritual sacrifice line of thought that ran throughout the trial and has long been blamed for the wrongful convictions of Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin.

While all three documentaries work together seamlessly as one narrative, they each have their own particular strengths and stylistic markers. It is this unique yet cohesive nature that makes the new Docurama set particularly strong and a must-have for legal documentary enthusiasts. As a whole, the three documentaries stand up to the Werner Herzog classic The Thin Blue Line in terms of power and, in the end, real-world effectiveness.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

“I think the cops just can’t find who done it, and they gotta put it on somebody.”

–Jessie Misskelley Sr.

The sentiments of Jessie Misskelley’s Jr.’s father predict the theme of the first Paradise Lost documentary. This initial documentary, filmed on location in West Memphis, Arkansas, largely followed the trials of the three accused killers. Some of the earliest court scenes focus on the separate trial of Jessie Misskelley Jr., where the mentally impaired teen’s supposed confession was debated at length. Viewers at the time were so compelled by the coercion of Misskelley and the Echols-Baldwin trial that many joined the West Memphis Three Support Fund, spearheaded by organizers on the West Coast who were dismayed by a perceived miscarriage of justice in the trial.

Paradise Lost uses a balance of interviews from the prosecution and defense, offset by footage of the parents of the three murdered boys and the three accused murderers. John Mark Byers, the father of Christopher Byers, figures prominently in this documentary and in those that follow. The filmmakers make a serious effort to examine a phenomenon known as “Satanic Panic,” which was used to blame innocent outsiders for heinous crimes throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. Viewed 20 years later, this trend seems particularly harrowing and, at times, silly.

Perhaps the strongest footage in this initial documentary revolves around the supposed criminal mastermind of the group, Damien Echols. Accused of being a practicing Satanist, the young man is put on trial as much for his beliefs, appearance and musical preferences as he is for the murder of the three young boys. His mindset is so influenced and altered by the proceedings that he at one time tells the filmmakers that he is “the West Memphis boogeyman. Little kids’ll be lookin’ under their beds before they go to bed, Damien might be under there…”

Marketed with the tagline Witchcraft or Witch Hunt?, the original Paradise Lost documentary remains as poignant today as it did at its release nearly 20 years ago.

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations

Released in 2000, the second installment in the Paradise Lost trilogy follows the progress of the West Memphis Three Support Fund and appeals filed by the three convicted killers with Arkansas’s highest court. John Mark Byers, adoptive father of victim Christopher Byers, was filmed extensively by Berlinger and Sinofsky for the documentary. Some of the most compelling footage in this second documentary revolves around the possibility that Byers himself may have killed the three young boys. Questions about his criminal history—and his mental stability—abound.

Despite the compelling footage of Byers, the pacing of Paradise Lost 2 is somewhat slower than that of the original documentary. The film is particularly strong when taken as a metaphor for the (in)efficiency of the criminal justice system. However, many viewers will find this to be the weakest of the trilogy due to a lack of compelling, convincing results in the case.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

The final installment in the Paradise Lost trilogy revisits the three convicted men, associated law enforcement personnel, attorneys and parents almost two decades after the child murders in Robin Hood Hills. Aptly titled Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, this installment in the series chronicles the deep-rooted anger of all parties involved in the West Memphis Three case. Police detectives and judges defend their light-on-evidence case while Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin maintain their innocence and work with their lawyers towards their release from prison. Though the three were released from custody in 2011, the legacy of the case still haunts their lives. Purgatory provides a strong finish to the series and leaves viewers wondering if three men in their 30s who have spent the last 17 years in prison can even lead so-called normal lives.

The Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector’s Edition Bonus Disc

A wealth of bonus materials are presented with the Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector’s Edition DVDs. A post-release interview with Jason Baldwin, ‘lost’ footage from the original documentaries and a special meeting between John Mark Byers and Jessie Misskelley Sr. are chronicled on the bonus disc. An interview with the filmmakers and a press panel discussion with Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin on the day of their release are included. Perhaps the most compelling footage, however, is of Misskelley Jr. and his then-girlfriend Susie talking on the phone in 1994. This feature ends with Misskelley Jr. receiving a letter from Susie for the first time in 15 years and is one of the most poignant representations of all the time and life experience the three men lost out on while in prison for the child murders at Robin Hood Hills.

Paradise Lost buffs and WM3 supporters will appreciate the hitherto unreleased photos and annotations provided in the booklet accompanying the set. The booklet also serves as an excellent introduction for viewers who are coming to the case for the first time. With the full release of the three documentaries and the included bonus materials, Docurama makes a strong case for reconsidering not just this particular case, but the nature of justice in America as a whole.

RATING 9 / 10