PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY (2012, 120 minutes, HBO Films) - Here is the anxiously awaited 3rd installment of the continuing sagas of Damien Wayne Echols, James Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, Jr., all convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in 1993. It wasn't aired on HBO and I just saw it On Demand - the only place it is available right now. It had originally been scheduled to air in January.
This compelling albeit slightly muddled documentary sequel begins by retelling the story of "The West Memphis Three" - Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley - and the horrible crime of three young boys' murders. At first I thought this was retread, but I quickly realized this was a vital documentary tool to catch up a viewer who might be new to the story.
The documentary does an excellent job of stunning the viewer by explaining how the case exploded in everyone's faces in the mid-2000s. New evidence was discovered and all of it re-examined; among the evidence was DNA and a new look at the victims' bodies. 46 minutes in, the infamous John Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims and one-time suspect, is interviewed yet again - this time on the side of three convicted men. Having gone through a similar witch hunt as the Three, Byers now rallied for their release. (After seeing the second documentary, the wife and I strongly suspected Buyers.)
What happened? The very first documentary, Paradise Lost - The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (see my review), drew public attention like nothing else since the O. J. Simpson or Michael Jackson trials. In 2007, four great forensic scientists were brought forward in a press conference to speak of the new evidence they'd reviewed. Among the evidence was a total lack of any DNA from the Three - but they did find somebody's DNA. There was also the fact that the original judge, David Burnett, had apparently somewhat politicized the case for his own benefit. He made the mistake of suppressing evidence of the innocence of the Three, allowing only evidence of their guilt.
The documentary does an excellent job revisiting the parents of the murdered children - including Terry Hobbs, yet another stepfather of another of the victims who seems to be suspected because his DNA was found on the boys' bodies. Though Hobbs is interviewed, the rest of the story is glossed over, though they address the defamation suit he brought against the Dixie Chicks for mentioning him in a press conference they gave. (He lost that case.)
It is riveting, truly explosive, to hear about the evidence that ultimately led to the release of the Three: an ongoing witch hunt, an obsession with satanic cults (there is no such thing as a 'satanic murder", the film informs us), a years-long obsession with Damien Echols and his pseudo-satanic, Goth activities, gross police incompetence and mishandling of the crime scene/evidence. A total yet not very surprising shock. Many of the community simply said the wrong people were in jail.
The film settles into its conclusion comfortably: with all this and a hearing to talk about a retrial set for December 2011, the Three were suddenly brought into court, made a special plea and released with time served. (See my review of Paradise Lost 2 - Revelations for more about this.)
As the attorney put it, no court would allow this at all if they thought the Three were guilty. The analysis of the new evidence in 2007 propelled this case to its happy ending; even more startling was that the court summoned the Three early and released them. You'll be riveted by this documentary, which is perhaps the most compelling and sad story of justice's miscarriage of the 20th century - bleeding into the 21st century. Saddest of all, the Three are technically guilty while having maintained their innocence throughout 18 harrowing years in prison. The newly suspected individual, Terry Hobbs, will walk free because no one else can be tried for the murders.
The Big Cheese at HBO is calling for a 4th documentary, stating that there is much documentation not released yet. A film based the story of The West Memphis Three is in the works. More power to them - not enough can be explained about this awful, harrowing case. The public needs to see the way the justice system can still be manipulated with skill and without proof of any wrongdoing.
Judge David Burnett, severe and uncompassionate, is now a senator. Good thing for justice and for the Three. What is worse than anything is that a murderer walks free and the three little victims will remain without justice. Only an echoing agony. Get this fantastic film, if you can't get the first two at least get this: it catches up with the original players and flashes back enough to explain it all. I loved it.