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The Nightmare of the West Memphis Three

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Evan Agostini/AP Images
Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols, and Jason ­Baldwin (hugging Echols’s wife, Lorri Davis) at a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory at the New York Film Festival, October 10, 2011

But the most unnerving thing about the film is the stunning amount of access granted to the filmmakers and local television reporters, a decision that many of the case’s principal figures would come to regret. Some of the scenes—a child’s corpse left to dry on the riverbank, a mother filmed in the moment she first sees photographs of her son’s mutilated body, a meeting of a support group called Parents of Murdered Children—are so intimate and raw that the viewer can’t help but feel implicated in the sordid business of turning a triple homicide into an entertainment. Other scenes, such as one in which the prosecutors acknowledge the weakness of their case to the victims’ parents, seem like strategic blunders that can only be explained by the lawyers’ desire for publicity.

The unseemly solicitation of publicity is, in fact, one of the film’s most gripping subplots. Almost everyone performs for the cameras, not just the lawyers on both sides and the judge, but also several of the victims’ parents and Damien Echols, who in one extended shot is shown preening in a mirror during a pause in the trial. The vampirish television reporters come across most execrably, however. We see them behind the scenes as they primp their hair or rehearse some deeply sanctimonious bit of narration for the nightly news. “Do you blame yourself?” asks one particularly slick interviewer, shoving his microphone in the face of Steven Branch’s mother, shortly after the murders. “Have you thought about suicide?” It’s unclear in these moments whether the filmmakers are merely mocking the exploitation of the case for popular consumption, or whether they understand that they are part of the same exploitation.

Paradise Lost is proof that documentary films are subject to what in quantum physics is called the observer effect: by merely documenting the proceedings, the filmmakers decisively altered its trajectory. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations not only acknowledges this fact but capitalizes on it, with the result that the second film bears little resemblance in tone or approach to the first. It follows the efforts of a group of HBO subscribers from all over the country who are moved by Paradise Lost to start a support group for the West Memphis Three. Several of them create an advocacy website, which is the first example of what would become a common phenomenon—today practically every popular murder case leads to the formation of fanatical online communities, in which members argue vehemently for or against the conviction of, say, Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox.

The advocates for the West Memphis Three (WM3) who appear in Paradise Lost 2 resemble nothing more than obsessive movie fans; they are all white, mostly in their twenties and thirties, and many live in Los Angeles. When asked to explain their attraction to the case, they tend to respond with some variation of, “I also wore black T-shirts, I also was an alienated teenager…. Damien Echols could have been me.” Among those who could identify with Echols were the very rock musicians and movie stars he idolized. Eddie Vedder, of the band Pearl Jam, became involved in the case early, donating money and offering the assistance of his own lawyers. He was joined by many others, including Henry Rollins of Black Flag (“I’d find myself up at 3:30 AM thinking about Damien. He could have been me. I had those records. I was sullen as a teenager”); the rock group Metallica, whose music serves as the soundtrack to all three Paradise Lost films (“They were outsiders who didn’t fit into what that community wanted,” said drummer Lars Ulrich. “I could definitely identify with them. We all could”); Johnny Depp (“I can empathize with being judged by how you look as opposed to who you are”); and Sir Peter Jackson, the New Zealand director of The Lord of the Rings (“I certainly identified with the fact that Damien, Jason, and Jessie didn’t have the resources to fight this”). Jackson, who coproduced West of Memphis, and his wife Fran Walsh, are believed to have donated more than $10 million to Echols’s cause.

Echols’s supporters went beyond arguing his innocence; they accused John Mark Byers of the murders. Paradise Lost 2 endorses this view, relying on ponderous innuendo to incriminate him—the same tactic used by investigators to cast doubt on Echols. In one particularly ugly scene, Kathy Bakken, one of the leading WM3 advocates, having traveled from Los Angeles to attend an appeal, badgers Byers about the death of his stepson. “Do you think that I had something to do with murdering my son?” asks Byers, in horror. “I don’t know if you had anything to do with it,” says Bakken, strident and haughty. “I want to know that you didn’t.”

The Byers theory fell apart in 2007, when an impressive team of forensics experts, assembled by Peter Jackson, concluded that Echols’s supporters had accused the wrong stepfather. A strand of hair, found cinched in one of the knots used to hogtie the boys, matched Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Steven Branch. It also turned out that most of the wounds found on the boys’ bodies, including Christopher Byers’s castration, had been committed post-mortem, by animals—turtles, most likely. And a DNA test—which alone cost $1 million—confirmed that there was no trace of Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley found at the crime scene.

When Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks and WM3 supporter, suggested in public comments that Hobbs was the murderer, Hobbs sued for defamation. Hobbs’s strategy backfired, for it allowed Maines’s lawyers to interrogate him about the murders on record. The eerie footage of that deposition serves as the climax of both Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and West of Memphis, which gives even greater prominence to the efforts made by celebrities to exonerate the West Memphis Three.

In these films we learn that Hobbs, who somehow was never interviewed by the West Memphis police, has no convincing alibi for the night of the murders; he had been furious at his wife Pam, Steven Branch’s mother, for cheating on him with a “Mexican”; Hobbs beat Pam, and after a dispute over his domestic abuse, he shot Pam’s brother, who later died; Hobbs was seen by a neighbor with the three boys at 6:30 PM on the night of the crime, near the edge of Robin Hood Hills, which makes him the last person seen with them; and he was observed later that night washing his clothes with bleach. Pam is today convinced of Hobbs’s guilt, and several boys who knew the Hobbs family claim that Terry’s guilt is an acknowledged “family secret.”

But all of this evidence is circumstantial and, while the case against Hobbs is more persuasive than that against Byers, some viewers may remain skeptical.4 One of the most powerful lessons of these films is how easily our opinions about a crime can be influenced by the manner in which information is presented to us. In the first film, for instance, Hobbs appears dazed and ruined by his stepson’s death. When the exact same footage appears in the third film, he looks like a murderer trying to hide a secret. John Mark Byers suffers an even more dramatic transformation—from a man deranged by grief, to a homicidal maniac, and back again. His behavior has not changed, only the context in which we view it. Once a person’s innocence is questioned, even the most innocuous behavior—or, in Hobbs’s case, a shifty eye or a nervous chuckle—can seem nefarious.

The lack of DNA evidence linking the West Memphis Three to the crime scene, together with the new forensic analysis and the suggestion of jury misconduct, convinced the State of Arkansas to make a deal. The prosecution proposed an Alford Plea, a rare legal maneuver by which the West Memphis Three would be released from prison, on the condition that they plead guilty to the murders. In return, the case would be closed, and the West Memphis Three would be barred from filing civil suits against the state. Baldwin refused to accept the deal on principle, but changed his mind after appeals from Echols and Misskelley. “That was not justice, no matter how you look at it,” said Baldwin. “They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys.” The pleas were entered on August 19, 2011, and the three men were released.

Scott Ellington, the state’s prosecuting attorney, defended the deal by reminding reporters that the West Memphis Three had, in fact, admitted their guilt. “That put that matter to rest,” he says in West of Memphis, deluding nobody, not even himself. In moments like this one almost feels some sympathy for the Arkansan prosecutors. They thought they were dealing with poor white trash and overmatched public defenders, only to discover that they were up against New Zealand’s sixteenth-richest man, America’s highest-paid movie star, and the best lawyers money can buy. One is reminded of a scene from the first Paradise Lost, when Misskelley’s mother identifies the main issue:

The damn system stinks…. If we had money, you think these three boys would’ve been picked up? They found people that they knew didn’t have money. Some boys had been in a little bit of trouble. They thought we didn’t care. But they’re wrong. They’re bad wrong.

But the story of the West Memphis Three tells us less about the power of wealth than it does about the power of celebrity. The money was crucial, of course, but the money followed publicity, and publicity follows celebrity. Damien Echols, to his credit, understood that without celebrity interest in his case, he stood no chance—“these people would’ve murdered me,” he says in Paradise Lost 3. “This case is nothing out of the ordinary,” he says in West of Memphis. “This happens all the time.”

Echols cultivated relationships with the rock stars and actors who sent him letters in jail and along the way he became a celebrity himself. His memoir, Life After Death, is striking for the relatively scant attention he gives to the murders and his trials.5 “It’s fucking miserable having to talk about this case over and over every single day,” he complained to an interviewer during his book tour. The memoir contains vivid accounts of the poverty of his childhood, the obscene cruelties of prison, and his fellow death row inmates, many of whom were too mentally infirm to understand their sentence. But mainly it is a project in self-mythology, dominated by jailhouse philosophy—stream-of-consciousness ruminations about the nature of time and spiritual transcendence—and grandiose proclamations: “If I start to believe that the things I write cannot stand on their own merit, then I will lay down my pen.” And there is plenty of name-dropping: Axl Rose, of the rock group Guns n’ Roses, was seen wearing a WM3 T-shirt, Eddie Vedder is “a true friend,” Johnny Depp is “a true friend and brother,” the singer Marilyn Manson “is quickly becoming my new best friend.” In glossy photographs he poses with Vedder, Depp (showing off matching tattoos), and the Jacksons (at an ice bar in New Zealand). Though much of the book was written while he was behind bars, the genre is not prison diary so much as celebrity memoir.

Paradise Lost 2 closes with Echols saying, “If I were released today, I would…want to just blend into obscurity.” He appears to have reconsidered. Besides promoting Life After Death and West of Memphis (he has a producer credit), he has exhibited his artwork in a New York gallery, gives paid speeches, and tweets obsessively to his fans. When he recently appeared at a conference for startup businesses in Memphis, he was greeted by a surprise visitor: Jessie Misskelley Jr., who since his release has lived in his father’s West Memphis trailer park. Echols gave Misskelley a copy of his memoir, in which he signed his name and drew a symbol. Misskelley later told reporters that he didn’t know what the symbol meant.

Jason Baldwin has kept a quieter profile. He has moved to Seattle, where he is pursuing his undergraduate degree, after which he plans to attend law school. He has cofounded a nonprofit organization, Proclaim Justice, devoted to publicizing wrongful convictions. These include the cases of Tim Howard, a black man who, despite the absence of physical evidence or a motive, was sentenced to death in Arkansas for the murders of his best friend and his best friend’s wife, both of whom were white; and Benjamine Spencer, also black, who has been imprisoned in Texas since 1987, even though a Dallas judge in 2008 declared him “factually innocent” of the murder of a white businessman. Howard and Spencer may never become celebrities like the West Memphis Three, but perhaps one day they will be famous enough to earn a fair day in court.

  1. 4

    Another hypothetical suspect advanced by the Paradise Lost films is an anonymous black man who, about one hour after the murders were committed, stumbled, dazed and covered with blood, into the restroom of the fast-food restaurant Bojangles’, one mile from the crime scene. Blood samples from the restroom were lost by the police and never tested. 

  2. 5

    His publisher, perhaps to compensate for this lacuna, appended to the e-book version a long essay about the history of the case. 

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