Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Penny Thoughts ‘12—Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) ****

NR, 121 min.
Directors: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Starring: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Pam Hobbs, Terry Hobbs, John Mark Byers, Jessie Misskelley Sr.

The 1993 Robin Hood Hills murders of three grade school children were tragic and sad. Almost as tragic was the fate of three older teens, who were blamed and served 18 years in prison despite little beyond circumstantial evidence convicting them of the murders. The boys-turned-men became known as the West Memphis Three, after the Arkansas town in which the murders occurred.

The “Paradise Lost” documentary series produced by HBO has followed the case since before the boys were tried. With what seems to be a fairly unbiased approach, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky paint a portrait of a town tearing at the seams due to the murders, and a legal system that railroads the three into guilt for a need of someone to blame. The parents of the children murdered understandably seem ready to burn someone at the stake for justice. The evidence against the three makes little sense and is based primarily on the teens’ obsessions with heavy metal music and rumored Satanism.

The first two docs came pretty close together. The first, released in 1996, followed the aftermath of the murders and the original trials. One boy was tried separately from the others, having apparently been coerced into a confession. The second film followed shortly after in 2000, covering the appeals process and the lives forever changed by the murders and the trials. In it one of the victim’s stepparents seems to have more knowledge than he should of the murder details. Could he have been the real killer?

For this film, a great deal of time has passed, more than a decade since the players had been on screen to tell their tales. Much has changed, and much is the same. The state of Arkansas seems adamant about not admitting any miscarriage of justice and although the one teen tried as an adult has stayed execution for over 15 years, they still deny the appeals with the same judge overseeing each appeal. The man who seemed the most obvious suspect in the second film, is one of the few of the victims’ parents who has had a change of heart. He seems genuinely regretful of how things went down. Meanwhile, it is another stepparent that now seems an even more obvious suspect.

But, like the appeals process, the film isn’t really so much about assigning the guilt for the murders as it is upending the justice that has been so obviously turned on its head for this terrible crime. The passage of time has not softened the filmmakers’ message or the resolve of the many working to help free the WMT. In the intervening years, even celebrities like Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder have joined the cause to free these apparently innocent men. And, those boys have grown into men. The prison system hasn’t beaten them down. They seem to be good men who have much to contribute to society. All those years have been lost for them.

HBO delayed the release of this movie when the State of Arkansas finally agreed to a hearing to see if a new trial was necessary for the three men. Although the state did find enough evidence to award a new trial, the process would’ve taken years. A detail about the case of which I was unaware until seeing the movie is that although the men were released from their prison sentences, they had to plead guilty to the crimes to obtain their freedom without a trial. They continue to fight to clear their names, but they do it in freedom rather than behind bars. I wonder if this story is over yet. 

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