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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
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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.”
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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. 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? 

  4. 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. 

  5. 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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