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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. “I can see where they might think I was in a cult,” he said, in that 1993 interview, “because I wear Metallica T-shirts.” The belief that the murders must have been committed by members of a cult was the foundation on which the prosecution built its case. It was, at the time, the most conceivable explanation for the extraordinarily grotesque details of the crime scene, where the bodies of the three boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found naked, bound, mutilated, and submerged in a shallow gulley.1

The gulley ran through Robin Hood Hills, a four-acre patch of forest that lay between Interstate Highway 55 and Holiday Garden, the working-class subdivision where the victims lived. Each of the four documentary films begins with the same ghoulish crime scene footage: the corpses, as white and rigid as child mannequins, lifted delicately by investigators from the water and laid on the muddy bank. The three boys had last been seen before sunset on the previous night, May 5, riding bikes near the entrance to Robin Hood Hills. At 8 PM, John Mark Byers, Christopher’s stepfather, called the police to report his son missing. The next afternoon a boy’s sneaker was spotted floating in the gulley. An officer waded into the muddy water to retrieve it and his shoe became wedged beneath what he thought was a log. When he stumbled backward, his foot dislodged a corpse, which floated to the surface.

The fact that the victims had been stripped naked, with their ankles tied to their wrists behind their backs, suggested a sexual aspect to the crime. This interpretation seemed to be confirmed by the most horrific detail of all: Christopher’s scrotum, and the skin of his penis, had been removed.

What kind of maniac would commit an act so diabolical? As early as May 6, rumors began to circulate in West Memphis that the culprit was, in fact, the devil himself, operating through a band of his worshipers. In one of the first public comments about the case, Chief Inspector Gary W. Gitchell of the West Memphis Police Department suggested that the murders were caused by “cult activity.” The department assigned the investigation a case number that ended with “666”—a coincidence, claimed Gitchell, though later reports suggested it was not.

As several weeks passed and no suspect was apprehended, rumors of Satanic involvement assumed greater urgency. These rumors were taken to be true by the victims’ parents, particularly John Mark Byers, a buffoonish, boorish, and ultimately pathetic figure who plays a starring role in the Paradise Lost films, often addressing the camera in the histrionic cadence of a Baptist preacher. In the first film he paces the crime scene while frothing about “Satanic worship services” and “wild homosexual orgies”; in the second film he returns to give the West Memphis Three a symbolic burial, after which he lights their graves on fire. Todd Moore, Michael’s father, expresses the same sentiment, albeit in a less histrionic fashion. “I’m all for burning them at the stake, just like they did in Salem,” he says, perhaps unaware that the women executed at Salem did not, in fact, turn out to be witches.

Investigators asked Jerry Driver, a local juvenile officer and self-described “guru” of the occult, to compile a list of local kids involved in cult-related activities. At the top of Driver’s list was Damien Echols, an eighteen-year-old high school dropout who had been hospitalized for depression. Police interviewed boys who were known to be friends with Echols. One of these, a young man named Jessie Misskelley Jr., confessed to the crime, naming Echols the ringleader and Baldwin an accomplice. Investigators were relieved. When Jason Baldwin’s mother protested that he was innocent, an officer told her, “We’ve got a story that is very, very believable. It is so close to perfect that we have to believe it.” Belief always trumped logic in the prosecution of the case.

Misskelley’s confession secured his conviction. But it could not be used against Echols and Baldwin, who were codefendants in a second trial, because Misskelley recanted and refused to testify against his friends. So it appeared, in the spring of 1994, that the case against Echols and Baldwin wobbled on three legs: testimonies by several children who claimed to have heard Echols and Baldwin boasting about the crimes; a serrated knife, the alleged murder weapon, which was discovered in the lake behind Baldwin’s trailer; and innuendo about satanic cults, based on the testimony of “cult expert” Dale Griffis, who had received his Ph.D. from a non-accredited distance-learning university. In his closing statement, district attorney John Fogleman pointed at Echols and said, “There’s not a soul in there.” That argument carried the day. Baldwin received a life sentence and Echols was sentenced to death by lethal injection. “The community felt like they were relieved,” says Pam Hobbs, Steven Branch’s mother, in West of Memphis. “Somebody was behind bars and…they didn’t have to be quite as scared as they were.”

As it turned out, the juror foreman in the Echols and Baldwin trial knew about Misskelley’s confession from reports in the press, and pushed aggressively during deliberation to convict based on the confession—a blatant act of jury misconduct. But this wasn’t discovered until more than fifteen years later. If the Satanic cult theory provided a motivation where one was absent, the confession served as the clinching evidence.

At the time, the notion that Misskelley’s confession, or any confession, might be false was barely entertained. During Misskelley’s trial, his lawyer—the sympathetic, ursine Dan Stidham—made several arguments in his defense: Miss- kelley’s IQ ranked among the lowest 4 percent of his age group; he was intimidated, lied to, and coerced into making the confession; and he was detained for more than eleven hours, contributing to his exhaustion and confusion. Stid- ham told the jury that interrogators had fed Misskelley details about the crime scene, and when Misskelley made statements that diverged from what they knew to be factual—that the crime was committed in the morning and not the late afternoon, for instance—they badgered him until he changed his story. As Stidham pointed out, Misskelley “didn’t tell the police anything that they didn’t already know.” In the audio recording of his confession, played during the trial, you can hear the detectives clearly prompting Misskelley, their questions containing the answers they sought: “Did anyone use a stick, and hit the boys with?” “You saw somebody with a knife, who had a knife?” “Another boy was cut, I understand?”

But Stidham, like most defense lawyers at the time, had no idea how common false confessions are. Ultimately he could do no more than feebly ask Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell, during cross-examination, “Did it ever occur to you that what he was telling you was false?” Even Baldwin’s lawyer, the glib, ponytailed Paul Ford, seemed convinced by Misskelley’s confession. In his closing statement, Ford argued that Baldwin shouldn’t be convicted just because he was friends with Echols. “Guilt by association,” Ford told the jurors, essentially acknowledging Echols’s guilt, “is a horrible thing.”

We now know that false confessions tend to occur in cases involving defendants who have a low mental capacity and are ignorant of the law, and whose interrogators place the defendants under duress by threatening a harsh sentence or forcing them to doubt their own memory of events. Young people are at increased risk, as are people in situations of severe exhaustion or stress. And most false confessions are not recorded in their entirety. All of these factors were present in Misskelley’s case.2

While legal scholars may have a more sophisticated understanding of false confessions than they did twenty years ago, that understanding has not reached every legal jurisdiction in America. Interviewed recently for West of Memphis, the original trial judge, David Burnett—who is portrayed in the films as a tragic buffoon, blinded by a toxic combination of hubris, stubbornness, and ignorance—refuses to consider the possibility that Misskelley might not have been telling the truth. “People don’t tend to confess to crimes that they didn’t commit,” he says, in the tone one might use if speaking to a two-year-old.

Were it not for HBO Films, there would be no “West Memphis Three”—only three convicted murderers, two serving life sentences and one, most likely, executed. This is not a credit to HBO as much as it is an indictment of the American justice system and one of the founding assumptions on which it stands.

Paradise Lost’s directors, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were not lured by a story of wrongful conviction; they went to West Memphis to make a film about Satanic bloodlust and sexual mutilation. The crime occurred at the end of a roughly five-year period, beginning in the late 1980s, in which fears of Satanic ritual abuse had become widespread in American popular culture. The scare extended even into law enforcement, to such an extent that the FBI commissioned a study on the subject in 1991. (The authors concluded that “after all the hype and hysteria is put aside, the realization sets in that most Satanic or occult activity involves the commission of no crimes, and that which does, usually involves the commission of relatively minor crimes such as trespassing, vandalism, cruelty to animals, or petty thievery.”)

Berlinger and Sinofsky spent their first several months in Arkansas interviewing the victims’ parents. The filmmakers began to question the premise of the suspects’ guilt only after they went on to interview the young men in prison. They realized then that they’d stumbled upon a story with even higher dramatic stakes—instead of a real-life Rosemary’s Baby, they had a modern-day Salem Witch Trials.

The structure of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills mimics the filmmakers’ own response to the case. It begins with the shock and horror of the crime scene footage, then turns to the arrest of the three suspects and the frothing television coverage, including the press conference in which Chief Inspector Gitchell, after being asked to measure on a scale of one to ten his confidence in the suspects’ guilt, replies “eleven.”3 The film never makes its arguments explicitly—in fact the tone is remarkably restrained compared to its two sequels—but the viewer is ultimately left with the unshakable sense that the suspects have received an unfair trial, and most likely are innocent. You also come away thinking that West Memphis, Arkansas is one of the most backward, bigoted, ignorant cities in America. Near the end of the film, after Damien Echols is sentenced to death, his sister and a friend commiserate:

“As far as I’m concerned, West Memphis can go to hell.”
“West Memphis is hell.”
  1. 1

    The most detailed account of the murders and the early legal battles can be found in Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, by Mara Leveritt, an Arkansan journalist (Atria, 2002). A feature film based on the book, directed by Atom Egoyan, will be released later this year. 

  2. 2

    See Brandon Garrett’s Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong (Harvard University Press, 2011), published four months before the West Memphis Three were released from prison. It is the first empirical study of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States. In the 250 cases analyzed by Garrett, forty defendants had given false confessions. Most of these defendants provided information that only the police could have known. 

  3. 3

    Gitchell has an anti-talent for rhetoric. Interviewed in Paradise Lost 2, he says, “There’s never been a moment that I ever doubted that we did not arrest the right individuals.” Grammatical error, or stunning admission? 

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