I discovered the "Paradise Lost" films three years ago and was mesmerized. Taken together, the first two installments, "The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" and "Revelations," are an extraordinary document of an American injustice. I rented them in 2009, sixteen years after three Arkansas teens were convicted of grisly child murders and more than two years before the state finally relented and acknowledged – sort of – what everyone else already figured out: that the convicted boys were innocent of the crime. I wrote at the time, "I think they should keep making the 'Paradise Lost' movies until the story is over, or until it is clear that the story never will be over." In 2011, the end finally came.
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" completes the story, which luckily for the convicted men turned out to be a trilogy and not a decalogue. Part one described how the justice system in West Memphis, Arkansas, fueled by ignorance and paranoia, railroaded Damien Echols, James Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley for the murders of three eight-year-old boys, inviting "expert" testimony about Satanic cults to draw a straight line between Echols's black clothes and a horrendous triple homicide. Part two considered the effect of the media, particularly how directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky went from being witnesses to the story to unavoidable participants in it. Part three focuses on how Arkansas's justice system, having made a clear and egregious error, bent over backwards to avoid admitting it. Altogether, "Paradise Lost" is a masterpiece.
Which is not to say that part three is, by itself, a masterpiece. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and this is probably the least of the parts. It spends too much time early on reiterating details already established in the previous films – helpful, admittedly, to those who haven't seen the previous films or saw them when they originally debuted, in 1996 and 2000, respectively, but those, like me, who saw the films more recently or have followed the case closely will be waiting anxiously for the new material.
The most compelling of the new evidence unearthed during this film includes witness testimony that Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims, was the last to see the children alive, and the revelation that his alibi was a lie, but none of these witnesses were ever questioned by the police.
So Hobbs did it, right? Not so fast. The second "Paradise Lost" film made a similarly compelling case against John Mark Byers, the stepfather of another of the murdered boys. He's a towering, fearsome man who was so full of rage that his protests and condemnations played like horrific performance art. Surely he's a killer, it seemed at the time. But Byers was eventually vindicated, and subsequently changed his tune; once the fiercest opponent of the convicted teens, he became an advocate for their release and in this film is so penitent about his previous actions that I regretted my suspicion. Even those of us who supported the West Memphis 3 against their neighbors' irrational hysteria are not immune to making snap judgments. When considering the murder of children, our natural impulse is to look for comfort in certainty; "He dunnit!" we say, and feel better to have found a target for our anger. But while the case against Hobbs is certainly compelling, it's circumstantial, and if I were a juror hearing this evidence, I couldn't convict beyond a reasonable doubt.
Nevertheless, the case against Hobbs is better than the case against Byers was, and heck, even the case against Byers was stronger than the case against the West Memphis 3. So what is most interesting – and confounding – about "Paradise Lost 3" is the continued insistence of those involved in the case that they got it right. The presiding judge rejected numerous appeals until the Arkansas Supreme Court finally went over his head in 2010. The lead investigator, who once described the strength of his evidence as "11" on a scale of one to ten, still insists that the right men went to jail. Some of the victims' families also maintain this, which is more understandable; I can't imagine what it takes to heal the wound of a lost child, let alone the agony of thinking the real killer went free.
I think there's also a degree of institutional arrogance in play. Arkansas passed a law that allows for a reconsideration of evidence if new DNA warrants it. In fighting the appeal, prosecutors made the argument that granting a new trial would harm the criminal justice system's "interest in finality." I think this boils down to, "The law has spoken, and it is sacrosanct. Imagine the chaos if we let all these innocent people go free!" The Arkansas Supreme Court sided with the West Memphis 3.
Then in August 2011, in a legal maneuver I don't fully understand, a deal was struck that allowed Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley to finally be released from prison. All they had to do was plead guilty to the crimes and be sentenced to time served. This was a tidy solution for the state of Arkansas, which released the innocent men while preserving the illusion that they were guilty all along. Unfortunately, it also means that the case is officially closed, and the real killer, be it Terry Hobbs or someone else, got away with killing three 8-year-old boys.
Berlinger and Sinofsky's films are an essential portrait of the American justice system, which is only as good as the people who run it. It's imperfect, the wrong people are sometimes convicted, and some innocent people, I have no doubt, are sentenced to death. Damien Echols credits these films with saving his life, because if not for "Paradise Lost," no one would have known and no one would have cared. Now consider for a moment the wrongful convictions in America that aren't caught on camera and the innocents who aren't defended by Johnny Depp or the Dixie Chicks. How many of them have died, and who will speak for them now?