When “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills” premiered on HBO in 1996, I probably watched the film 20 times. My family went on a vacation to Florida and as the only early riser, I would flip on HBO with a carton of ice cream and watch the documentary over and over again. Even after everyone went to bed, I watched the film chronicling the trial of three poor misfit youth accused of being in a cult and murdering three young boys. I went to sleep every night haunted by the images of the crime and trial. But I couldn’t stop watching it.
I guess I was fascinated by the film directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky because I had never seen anything like it. The amount of access the filmmakers had to the trial proceedings, the victims families and Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr provided the viewer with a startling clear view of this community and the crime. After that summer, I never saw or even thought of “Paradise Lost” until last year when the West Memphis Three were set free from prison.
To catch up with the story that made such an impression on me as a kid, I watched “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” which deftly summarizes the case from the original film and exposes a wealth of new evidence and the fight to free the West Memphis Three. Never clinical or staid, “Paradise Lost 3” is a heartbreaking and fascinating story throughout. The murder of Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Stevie Branch was a horrible tragedy. The film shows how criminal and legal professionals compounded this tragedy by convicting the West Memphis Three and neglecting evidence that has let the real murderer go unpunished.
The film shows how people who were convinced of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley’s guilt have become some of their most outspoken advocates. It shows how the film spurred thousands to action, uncovered important evidence, and saved their lives. It’s terrible to think what would have happened if the 1996 film had not been made. Damien Echols was originally sentenced to death and would have been killed if not for the legal resources and support the film garnered for them.
The last scene chronicles the day the West Memphis Three walked out of prison. Each entered Alford pleas which allowed them to maintain their innocence but plead guilty and walk free. It’s a scene that filled me with gratitude, but also rage. Finally, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are free but at the cost of truth, justice, and their dignity as innocent men. Baldwin wanted to continue the fight, but only entered the plea to save Echols’ life. These two friends show each other more humanity than anyone else in the film. I was in tears. Everyone must see “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” and be reminded how myopic thinking and stereotyping is lethal in our legal system.