The Nightmare of the West Memphis Three

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)

three films directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
HBO, three DVDs, each $26.95–$29.95; boxed set $49.95

West of Memphis

a film directed by Amy Berg
Sony Pictures, to be released on DVD in August
Lisa Waddell/ZUMA Press/Corbis
Jason Baldwin—one of three teenagers imprisoned for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas—being led to a pretrial hearing past the fathers of the ­murdered boys, November 16, 1993. From right to left are Steven Branch, father of Steven Branch; Todd Moore, father of Michael Moore; and John Mark Byers, stepfather of Christopher Byers.

In May 1993, Jason Baldwin was a skinny redheaded teenager whose favorite activities were listening to Metallica records and fishing behind the trailer where he lived with his mother. His cat, Charlie, would sit beside him; whenever he caught a fish, he fed it to Charlie. Baldwin was sixteen that year, but he looked no older than twelve. In an interview filmed at the time he appears shy and quiet, with an awkward, insecure smile that reveals a snaggletooth. A baggy orange prison jumper hangs like a blouse over his matchstick frame. On the table in front of him are a half-eaten Snickers bar and a plastic bottle of Mello Yello. He turns to the camera.

“I didn’t kill those three little boys,” says the little boy.

This interview appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the first of three documentary films produced by HBO about the West Memphis Three saga—a twenty-year nightmare that has been the subject of a fourth documentary film, West of Memphis; half a dozen books; and tens of thousands of magazine, newspaper, and television features. When watched consecutively, the Paradise Lost films have an effect similar to that of Michael Apted’s Up films, which revisit the same group of Britons every seven years. In both series, we see the principal characters age, shed their youthful naiveté, and pass through stages of cynicism and grief, before ultimately accepting their fate.

While Apted’s films are remarkable for the way they make visible the passage of time, however, the Paradise Lost films record an artificially imposed stasis. The lives of Baldwin and his two friends, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., froze the moment they were arrested for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. When at last they were set free in 2011 they were like children again; the world was entirely new to them.

In one of the final scenes in West of Memphis, Baldwin, who has grown tall and gaunt, is taken on the afternoon of his release to a Memphis hotel room. He stares in wonder at a room-service salad. “There’s cheese in there,” he says, baffled; he’s never had a salad with cheese in it. He fidgets with the handle of a new rolling suitcase; he’s never owned a suitcase before. His mother appears at the door; “Mom!” he screams, and he’s again the little boy with the Mello Yello and the half-eaten Snickers bar.

That little boy, despite his obvious terror, had been able to empathize with his accusers.…

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