Paradise Lost


Reviewed by: Nick Jones

If ever there was an advertisement for not going to Arkansas, this is it. Especially if you like wearing black T-shirts depicting heavy metal bands. You might just find yourself on Death Row.

You see, in towns like West Memphis, when children are found murdered in the woods, the police don't go for the most likely source, despite the well-known statistic that 80 per cent of murders are committed by someone who knows the victim. They go on a manhunt, find some "outsiders" who listen to Metallica - and therefore must practice witchcraft - or, at least, that's what happened in the infamous Robin Hood Hills case.

In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found dead near a river in a small town, their hands and ankles tied together with their own shoelaces, their naked bodies brutalised. One of the boys, Chris Byers, even had his genitalia removed, an act that led the police and later the jury to believe it was a ritualistic sacrifice of some kind. The police questioned Jessie Misskelley, a teenager with an IQ of 72, for 12 hours, until he confessed that he and his friends Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin murdered the three kids in the woods.

However, as the film reveals, the police only recorded the last 45 minutes of the interrogation and Misskelley's description of the murders did not fit any of the evidence. And as Warren D Holmes, an expert on police interrogation techniques, explained in court, it is classic behaviour of a mentally challenged person to falsely confess to get the police off his back. Other than this paper-thin "proof," nothing else linked the West Memphis Three to the murders, other than the fact that Damien, the alleged ringleader, is knowledgeable about witchcraft and a few people claimed to have heard him boast about the killings.

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky filmed the events for HBO and the result is this two-and-a-half hour documentary, which is mesmerising, leaving you wanting more. You see everything - the trial, the original police crime video (very graphic and distressing to watch) and interviews with everyone involved in the case.

It is understandable that the film sparked many people to start rallying for the prisoners' release, because it is so in depth and even handed you feel part of it. There is no obvious bias; we hear both sides of events and so you don't feel that the filmmakers are forcing their views down your throat. Of course, when the jury reached its verdict, it sends a shiver down your spine, hearing the words "guilty" and, in Damien's case, "lethal injection".

What makes Paradise Lost so gripping is the growing suspicion that, not only are the trio innocent, but Mark Byers, the 6ft 8ins stepfather of Chris Byers, is the probable perpetrator. The aggression in his voice, his physical size and crazed look makes him appear more capable of carrying out the killings than the smart, softly spoken Echols. Such suspicion snowballs in the film's sequel, when Byers's wife dies in indeterminate circumstances. Did he suffocate her because she knew too much?

Paradise Lost is a powerful, unforgettable documentary that cannot be faulted on any level. However, the trio are still behind bars and Damien remains on Death Row, showing that the notoriety of the two films have yet to raise enough awareness to make a difference. Hopefully, with its DVD release, there will be enough furore for the case to be re-opened, before it's too late.

Reviewed on: 10 Aug 2005
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The disturbing case of child murders in West Memphis, 1994
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Director: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

Starring: Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelly, Jason Baldwin

Year: 1996

Runtime: 150 minutes

Country: US


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