The third documentary about the West Memphis 3 is a frontrunner for the Best Documentary Oscar. Lorenza Muñoz traces the films’ 19-year journey, ending with the three men’s release.
It was a case too sensational to pass up. With a Southern Gothic feel, three Arkansas teenagers had been accused of torturing and killing three 8-year-old schoolboys in a Satanic ritual.
So when Sheila Nevins, HBO president of Documentary and Family Programming, saw the tiny wire story buried deep inside The New York Times in 1993, she sent documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to investigate.
“Sheila saw that story as the Satanic worshipers who killed the Cub Scouts,” recalled Berlinger, whose 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper had impressed Nevins. “At the time the country was coming off a wave of Satanic hysteria … It was a real life River’s Edge.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky were intrigued by the angle of kids killing kids. But in chronicling the case of the so-called West Memphis 3, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley, they came away convinced that the teens were innocent.
The subsequent documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its two sequels, created a worldwide firestorm of coverage and an outcry in the public. It also drew attention from music-industry figures such as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, the Dixie Chicks’s Natalie Maines, and Patti Smith. It prompted director Peter Jackson and his wife, screenwriter Fran Walsh, to hire forensic-evidence experts who found new DNA evidence exonerating the West Memphis 3 and possibly pointing at another suspect. After spending nearly two decades in prison—including death row for Echols—they were released in a plea deal in August.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which premiered on HBO last month, has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. In the always-unpredictable category, it is considered a frontrunner.
The case has spurred a cottage industry around the West Memphis 3, including websites, concerts, books, and another documentary, West of Memphis, produced by Jackson and Walsh and directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil). In the near future, Devil’s Knot, a feature film by Atom Egoyan starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, will begin filming, and Johnny Depp has optioned the movie rights to Echols’s forthcoming memoir.
“The mythos of the West Memphis 3 has gotten so big, and there are so many people planting flags that I just feel like it is time for new blood and new perspective and I want to move on in my life,” said Berlinger, who spent 18 years following the case. “I have never seen a story attract so much attention.”
From the start, it was a story with captivating angles: three innocent boys killed in the woods, strange teenagers said to be devil worshipers, a small-town atmosphere where fear was palpable, law-and-order prosecutors who faced intense pressure to find the culprits, and a local media hungry for the biggest story of their lives.
But a convergence of factors made the story bigger than anyone could imagine. Berlinger and Sinofsky’s crew arrived before the O.J. Simpson trial unleashed the obsession with court television. The first documentary, released in 1996, memorialized intimate and arguably inappropriate disclosures on camera that could become fodder for appeals. After the trio’s convictions, the case stayed alive in the newly fertile ground of the Internet, where advocates found an unrestrained venue to dissect the case and get the word out.
“One of the themes of the series is how the media can shape our perceptions of an event,” said Berlinger. “The media at the beginning of the story helped convict these guys. And then, in mid-2000, the media starts to tell the story of the innocence.”
At the time of the arrests, the country was obsessed with so-called Satanic ritualistic killings, with national media figures like Geraldo Rivera and Oprah Winfrey dedicating segments to the (nonexistent, hysterical) phenomenon. In the God-fearing, heavily Baptist town of West Memphis, devil worshiping became a scourge to exorcise.
“The media got so wrapped up in the Satanic angle it was like watching piranhas eat a gazelle in a creek,” said Dan Stidham, who represented Jessie Misskelley and is now a judge. “Triple homicides of children are rare. It scared the hell out of people in Arkansas. Satanic Panic started.”
From the beginning, it did not bode well for the West Memphis 3. Stidham awoke on the morning of June 7, 1993, to see Jessie Misskelley’s confession on the front page of the local paper, The Commercial Appeal.
“It was something we were happy to have ahead of anybody else,” said Henry Stokes, the then–managing editor of The Commercial Appeal. “I think the firestorm was already underway by the time we wrote about the confession. Did it fuel it on further? Maybe so. But any bit of information would have done that.”
Stidham tried to keep the media at bay by warning Misskelley and his family not to talk, but it was like tilting at windmills. Local television reporters were bringing beer to Misskelley’s father, an alcoholic, to coax him into calling his son in jail, said Stidham.
By not talking to the media, the press relied on leaks that mainly came from the prosecution’s angle, said Jason Baldwin, who had also been advised by his attorney to stay quiet.
“The media could have talked to my family and approached people in a respectful manner,” said Baldwin, who now lives in Seattle. “But a lot of the time they would scream out statements and call it a question like ‘You are a Satanist. Why did you get into Satanism?’ Things like that.”
But perhaps the biggest problem was not the questions the local press asked, but what they didn’t, said Mara Leveritt, an investigative reporter who wrote Devil’s Knot, and later became an advocate for the three men’s freedom.
The press was hampered by the judge’s denial to allow the media access to the arrest warrants as well as the voir dires of the jury pool, she said. Later, he imposed a gag order on all parties. No one in the local press questioned the validity of the case, the reliability of the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory, or how Misskelley’s confession was handled by police (a minor, he was alone with police, and had an IQ of 72—borderline mentally disabled), Leveritt noted.
In this information vacuum, something had to feed the beast and, as Leveritt said, “Satanism beat skepticism.”
Ministers were used as expert pundits, kids were quoted saying they had seen Echols and Baldwin drink a girl’s blood, and some boys claimed to have heard ghosts in Baldwin’s house.
“They did interviews with teenagers about finding dog bones and sites where people had done ritualistic killings,” said Leveritt. “In the absence of anything actual to report, the press cruised around the neighborhood and see if anyone had anything to say about how weird Damien Echols was. That was the drumbeat.”
Leveritt and others believe that drumbeat helped contribute to the convictions of the three—despite the fact that no physical evidence was found linking the suspects to the victims and that Misskelley’s confession was, arguably, illegally obtained.
“After the trial and the appeals it is easy to ask yourself what could we have done better,” said Stokes. “But for better or for worse, the main job of daily journalism is to report what happened today and then share that with your readers. We never tell the whole truth on a day, we never know it on a day. But over time our faith is that the truth will emerge.”
As much as the local press seemed shut out or unable to get the story, the filmmakers received extraordinary access. Berlinger says they benefited from timing. There was a general innocence at the time about the impact a film on HBO could have. Berlinger and Sinofsky obtained jaw-dropping interviews in which the prosecutors admit to the families they had a 50–50 chance of conviction without Misskelley’s confession; an extraordinary posttrial admission by the judge that he had thought from the beginning that there was ample evidence to convict them; and private discussions between the defense attorneys and their clients.
It was also unprecedented in Arkansas to have cameras in the courtroom, according to Leveritt.
“We embedded ourselves in that community and worked it really hard,” said Berlinger. “This was the end of a certain era in media where people were a little naïve about what a film could do … If the crime happened today, there would be 80 satellite news trucks from around the world, all the families would have media handlers, and Hollywood agents would have bought up the rights immediately.”
Although Berlinger likens the first documentary to an objective journalistic piece, a few months into filming, he said that HBO paid all six families a one-time honorarium of $7,500 as a “humanitarian gesture.” He continued: “It was not connected to any kind of expectation of them talking. It didn’t taint the relationship.”
“I considered it a gesture of good will because these people are so dirt poor,” said Stidham. “I didn’t see it as an incentive to talk.”
By the time Paradise Lost 2: Revelations was released in 2000, the case had captured national attention all questioning how the three young men had been found guilty. T-shirts and bumper stickers were made. Supporters—some wearing black hair, clothes, and nails in solidarity with Echols’s goth appearance—showed up in court. Websites supporting the men cropped up. It touched a nerve among the Hollywood and music-industry crowd, who saw in Echols a mirror of themselves growing up.
“Alternative people thought, ‘This could have been me,’” said Berlinger.
When the second documentary came out, Stidham said he woke up to find 5,000 emails in his inbox.
“The second film became an advocacy film,” said Stidham. “They were convinced that these guys were innocent.
The second film was about the world of publicity that the first film spawned.”
As the roar of outrage grew louder, the pressure on Arkansas officials to allow another hearing became overwhelming. But still, the release took years: finally, in August 2011, Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley were released, walking into cheering crowds and hordes of fans. So while the media might have played a role in their conviction, Baldwin is grateful they were there in the end.
“I literally think it took the collaborative effort of everyone—whether it was the documentary, a concert, or a book or a bumper sticker—it took the world community to get us out,” said Baldwin. “If it weren’t for Bruce and Joe, no one would have known. I thank God every day they were there.”