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Entries in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills [1996] (1)


Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)


Hicks and Hexes

The saying goes that the best way to criticize a bad movie is to make a good one. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinfofsky have taken that idea a step further by applying it to a murder trial. Their documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, is a damning critique of two trials that saw the (apparent) wrongful conviction of three teenage boys for murder in West Memphis, Arkansas. These filmmakers have taken their case to the court of public opinion, and have made a compelling argument for their subjects’ innocence.

The film opens with grisly footage of the crime scene: the naked, mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys are dragged from a river embankment. Watching the police video, it was startling to think that I was seeing real human beings and not dummies from some slasher film; the reality didn’t hit me until the cut to the family interviews and local news coverage. It’s a hell of a way to open a movie, and the directors wisely went with the most shocking images right off the bat; they would be the tent pole on which the rest of the story—and the trial—would come to rest.

We learn that on May 5, 1993, the three second-graders were allegedly attacked in the woods of Robin Hood Hills by Jessie Misskelly, Damien Wayne Echols, and Jason Baldwin. The teen outcasts—who wore all-black and listened to Metallica—brutally raped, killed, and disfigured the kids as part of a Satanic ritual, or so the story goes. Paradise Lost spends a lot of time on the front end with the victims’ families, all working-class upstanding citizens whose grief has quickly morphed into anger: they gleefully hypothesize about what will happen to the killers when inmates/God/Satan get hold of them; one mother even promises to mail one of the jailed teens a skirt. The outrage is understandable—though very unsettling—and it’s easy to side with the relatives; that is, until the facts of the case begin to unravel.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Paradise Lost became the most fascinating court drama I’ve ever seen. During two trials, we see the legal teams of all three defendants paint a picture of small-town prejudices that made them the only possible suspects in the murder—even though each teen had an alibi and none had motive. Despite the fact that one of the victims’ own fathers is eventually eyed as a viable suspect, the defense teams face an up-hill battle that has less to do with the facts of the case than with the fear and suspicion of people who want to upend their beliefs (a couple of the expert witnesses are derided by the prosecution for being “big-city” folk whose fancy college educations and high rates of pay negate anything they might have to contribute). Unfortunately, I was somewhat familiar with the fate of the “West Memphis Three” (this documentary did come out almost fourteen years ago), so I lost out on the drama of the verdict; but Berlinger and Sinofsky so effectively involved me in the story that I almost forgot.

In addition to the courtroom material, the interviews with both the victims’ families and the families of the accused are just fascinating. No one in West Memphis comes across as particularly educated, attractive, or even nice; it’s easy to see where the caricatures of Southern ignorance come from. But there are surprises everywhere, as in a scene where one of the dead boys’ family is sitting around cursing the murderers and plotting violent revenge in the event that the alleged killers are set free; the grandfather pipes up and says that he’s a Christian, and that as mad and hurt as he is, he won’t engage in the Devil’s work. When we meet Damien Echols’ girlfriend, we see a sweet teenage mother who never doubts the innocence of the boy she loves, and her testimony ultimately causes us to re-evaluate some of what we believe about Damien. You could edit out the trial altogether and still have a solid movie about human pettiness and compassion.

Ultimately, Paradise Lost makes a strong case for the teens’ innocence, though it also paints them as being not bright enough to be able to look innocent. Of the three, Damien Echols is the most educated, but also the cockiest, and it’s not difficult to see how a jury could go against him, even in the face of evidence that he was nowhere near the crime scene. I came away from the movie angry at the proud ignorance of the town and embarrassed for the justice system—I know that it works in many cases, but when it doesn’t, well, you get things like redneck justice and an unsolved murder.

Note: I haven’t seen the sequel, Paradise Lost: Revelations, which follows up on the case with, I guess, new evidence. I plan to check it out soon, to see if it answers some questions that I have about the original trials (such as how the prosecution thought the teenagers lured three second-graders into the woods in the first place).