The astonishing documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills starts with a crime that seems unreal, apocryphal: the murder of three 8-year-old boys, one of whom was sexually mutilated, in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The filmmakers, Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger, let us have it with the unfathomable hideousness of the crime, giving us more than one look at the pitiful remains. But they are being tactical, not lurid: They're not about to be accused, on the basis of what follows, of shirking the suffering of innocent victims.
This is because the meat of the film is the trial of the teenage boys charged with the crime, and pretty much convicted in advance by the community, on the basis of evidence that, unless grossly underrepresented by the film, was entirely insubstantial. It's a film about the rabid desire that certain crimes excite not for justice, but to punish somebody.
In West Memphis, the somebodies were a trio of dorky teenage metalheads, one of whom, Damien Wayne Echols, had an interest in occultism (he had read books on Wicca, or white witchcraft); the suspicion was that the killings were part of a satanic ritual. Another of the three, Jessie Misskelley Jr., confessed to taking part in the crime after some two hours of unrecorded questioning. He later recanted his very debunkable confession, but was still convicted in a trial separate from that of Echols and Jason Baldwin, the youngest of the accused.
Because of a jaw-dropping shortage of physical evidence, Misskelley, who had an IQ of 72 and fit to a T the profile of a false confessor, was offered a reduced sentence to testify against his friends; he refused. In the course of the trial, the defense effectively refuted the prosecution's forensic case and established a very plausible alternative suspect. Against that, the prosecution argued basically that the three defendants, especially Echols, were weirdos who wore black and had unhealthful interests, so it's a good bet that they did it.
By phone from Arkansas, then-prosecutor John Fogleman (he's now a circuit court judge for Crittenden County) gave me his opinion of the film: "I really do sincerely think that Joe and Bruce tried to be fair. If anything, I think they had a subconscious bias in favor of the defense. There were some explanatory things left out." He admits that the crime scene was "spotless," but cites a witness who placed Damien Echols and his girlfriend near the scene on the evening of the crime, and an inadmissible test that hinted at the presence of blood on a river bank at the scene, a possible refutation of the defense contention that the boys were murdered elsewhere and dumped at the scene. Still, when asked about the lack of physical evidence against the defendants, Fogleman readily concedes: "There was a remarkable lack of physical evidence against anybody."
After the O.J. Simpson verdict, one heard a lot about how the criminal justice system sucks (usually from those who had felt no similar outrage over the Simi Valley verdict of the Rodney King cops). If the system does indeed suck, this film shows, at least, that it sucks differently in different cases, sometimes for the prosecution, sometimes for the defense. If the O.J. case showed us how an overwhelming preponderance of evidence can result in an acquittal, Paradise Lost jarringly demonstrates on what flimsy evidence it is possible to be convicted.
I've never been a juror of anything more significant than a film festival, and I never want to be, because I can imagine very few murder cases in which I wouldn't have some reasonable doubt. But Paradise Lost positions us as jurors, while at the same time it shows us sides of the case that a juror would not get to see.
It's probably the most intimate courtroom documentary ever made. Sinofsky and Berlinger managed access to meetings between lawyers and clients that ought, it seems, to be privileged and confidential, and they won the trust of the parents and other family members. Sometimes the nakedness of the subjects' psyches makes you want to avert your eyes--the fathers of two of the victims fantasizing about killing the defendants as they take pistol shots at a pumpkin, or Misskelley's sweet young girlfriend smiling with embarrassment while Misskelley tries to talk dirty to her over the phone from prison.
Sinofsky and Berlinger's 1992 film Brother's Keeper was also a documentary about a rural murder trial. But the group psychology they uncovered there was the opposite of that revealed in Paradise Lost.
The less incendiary case in Brother's Keeper involved an illiterate farmer in upstate New York who was accused of murdering one of his three brothers. The townies, who up to then had regarded the brothers with unease, rallied to their defense in reaction to the police and the prosecution, whom they perceived as interfering outsiders. It was a striking demonstration that the idea of community is alive in America, not just in platitudes, but also on an instinctive level.
I interviewed the filmmakers at the time of Brother's Keeper's release, and I asked whether they had an opinion about the truth of the case. I was told that they did, but that they preferred not to share it. That neutrality showed in the film, but the nuts and bolts of the case for or against the defendant weren't really the point of that film. In Paradise Lost, they are--the crime screams for an explanation.
But Berlinger and Sinofsky wear the same poker face here. This film isn't quite a slam-dunk, like Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line--it's just possible that Echols and his pals did it. The film is about how that possibility allowed the community to navigate oceans of reasonable doubt.
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What finally nailed the three boys, what keeps a bit of suspicion alive even for us in the detached jury box of the multiplex, is their strange nonchalance about what's happening to them. One kid fumbles a question, then later admits to his lawyer that he was only half-listening. All three titter evasively when they speak. None of them acts like you or I imagine we would if we were wrongly accused of stealing petty cash, much less killing children (and when the defense gets its alternative suspect on the stand, he acts the same way the defendants do). It's as if the defendants are convicted for being insufficiently horrified.
Echols seems particularly calm. At the end of the film, he suggests that the trial may turn him into a mythic figure, "West Memphis' own bogeyman." He seems rather pleased at the thought.
Documentaries are often praised for having the high drama of a fiction film, but the strongest documentaries, like Paradise Lost, show us stuff that fiction filmmakers would never think of, and they teach us things that only real life can. A lesson of Paradise Lost: When on trial for murder, a dispassionate, low-key sense of irony may not be the best trait to have.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills:
Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.