By William Wolf


Real life can be more dramatic than fiction, a truism proved anew by the enterprising director team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who have provided a spellbinding account of a gross miscarriage of justice in a follow-up to their two earlier films about the same case, films that helped galvanize pubic support for the falsely accused. “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” is being shown by HBO Documentary Films, with its official release in 2012. As luck, or life, would have it, a dramatic development gave the filmmakers a new, updated ending in time for the film’s showing at the 2011 New York Film Festival.

The situation stems from a ghastly crime. In 1993 when three eight-year-old boys were found mutilated and murdered in the wooded Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Ark., the pressure was on to find their killers. A month later the police arrested three teenagers, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, and in an atmosphere of extreme prejudice, including talk of devil worship, the three were convicted. Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Echols was condemned to be executed. Misskelly was given life plus 40 years.

When Berlinger and Sinofsky first became interested, they had no reason to doubt the guilt of the three and the perspective was for a film was exploring why teenagers would commit such a terrible crime. But as they looked deeper and the three continued to maintain their innocence, questions began to arise and it began to look increasingly as if the teenagers were indeed innocent and the real killer was at large. Support began to grow for the so-called West Memphis Three.

This is a case in which the tenacity of the filmmakers in exploring the facts, in addition to telling a compellingly dramatic and bizarre story, has struck a blow for justice. The first two films were fascinating, and the third is even more so, given the results that began to happen after the teenagers, now men, had spent 18 years in prison, including Echols’ time on death row. The situation changed when the Arkansas Supreme Court in November, 2010, ordered a hearing for the defense to present new evidence, including DNA test results. The hearing was set for December, 2011.

But as the latest film now shows, before the hearing could take place, the prosecution worked out a deal for the three to walk free. The arrangement was strange, to say the least. The deal was that the men would plead guilty but at the same time maintain their innocence. This is known as the rarely used “Alford” guilty plea. The three were sentenced to time already served. The benefit for the state is that lawsuits for wrongful imprisonment can be avoided, and also the three might well have been acquitted if a new trial had been ordered as a result of the impending hearing.

The film includes all of this, and provides us with a portrait of the men at this stage of their lives, as well as vividly giving us details about the entire case, the reactions in the community and controversial speculation as to who the killer might be. Berlinger and Sinofsky have done an amazing job of achieving clarity in weaving the various threads of this sensational real-life drama.

HBO, Berlinger and Sinofsky are to be congratulated for offering this powerful film, which in addition to the specifics of the case itself, tells us much about life in a particular section of the country. It is a film in the best documentary tradition, and it begs the issue of how there can be further redress for the three who have had so much of their lives taken away from them and branded as vicious killers. An HBO Documentary Films release.


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