Documentary Review: Paradise Lost Parts 1-3
I finally watched the HBO documentary series "Paradise Lost" which explores the trials of the "West Memphis 3". On May 5, 1993, three 8 year old boys, Stevie Chambers, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, were found mutilated and murdered in the woods in West Memphis, Arkansas. Shortly afterward, three teenagers were arrested and subsequently found guilty of the murders. Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols have always maintained their innocence despite a confession from Misskelley. The confession contained multiple errors and discrepancies with the case and has characteristics of a coerced statement. Despite the weakness of the confession, it was the only evidence they had connecting the teens to the case.
Misskelley was a mentally disabled young man with an IQ of 72. When he was being interrogated by the police, he was scared and wanted to go home to his father. During his trial, he would sit almost bent all the way forward and he never looked up. He looked like a scared little child and essentially that is who he was. He is sentenced to life plus two 20 year sentences.
Baldwin was 16 when the documentary begins, but he looks no older than 13. Echols was his best friend and a few years older. Echols liked to wear black clothing, listen to Metallica, and would read books about the Wiccan religion and demonic worship. Based on the way he dressed and the fact that he was a misfit, it is pretty clear that he was convicted solely on those things and not on any physical evidence. Baldwin gets life, but Echols gets the death penalty.
It is really amazing to watch the progression of this case and the toll it has taken on so many lives. One of the stepfathers, Mark Byers, is front and center in the first two parts of the documentary. The filmmakers couldn't have made this guy up if they'd tried. He is larger than life and a religious zealot. His behavior is erratic and strange to say the least. He goes to the crime scene multiple times and curses the sky. At one point, he makes "graves" for the three convicted teens and then starts a fire. His wife (the mother of the murdered child Christopher Byers) appears to be drugged each time she is on film and actually dies under suspicious circumstances a few years after the murders.
The three young men convicted of the crime essentially become men after they go to prison. Echols and Baldwin further their education in prison. And Echols gets married. After the first part of Paradise Lost premiered, the case got worldwide attention. People from all over the country come together to try to prove the innocence of the three men, including celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp.
Looking at the case and the evidence, the question of who had access to the boys and motive to kill the boys is brought up. Because of his strange behavior, Mark Byers does begin to look like a possible suspect. But in part 3, the violent background of another stepfather, Terry Hobbs, surfaces. He gets in trouble for beating up his wife and a man she may have been interested in. Two weeks after the murders, he moves out. His ex-wife, Pam, begins to believe that he might have been involved in the murders. Finally, a hair is found in one of the ligatures used on the boys matches Terry Hobbs. He is the only person who can be connected to the crime scene with physical evidence. He also does not have an alibi for the evening of the murders. There is also a woman in West Memphis who saw Terry Hobbs with the boys even though he claims he never saw the boys that day.
The number of errors made in this case is mind-boggling. Other than no physical evidence connecting the three men, there are also pieces of evidence that are never explored. Pictures of one of the boy's face clearly show bite marks, but the original medical examiner said that he didn't think it was a bite mark. The crime scene is pristine. Despite that fact that the boys he were beaten and one of them castrated, there is no blood evidence at the scene. What this tells me (someone who is not a law enforcement professional), is that this was not where the murders occurred. The boys had to have been killed somewhere else and then taken to those woods.
Forensic experts are brought in to look at the case and after looking over the case, it is clear to the experts that the crime was committed by someone who knew the boys and had access to the boys. Even Mark Byers, who fervently believed that the three teens committed the crime, changes his mind. After watching the first 2 parts, I would never have believed that Byers would change his mind. But even he sees that the West Memphis 3 are innocent.
There is also misconduct on the jury at the trial for Echols and Baldwin. The jury foreman knew about Misskelley's statement (which was not allowed to be presented at the trial) and told the jury about it. He told a lawyer that the believed that the teens were guilty and purposely tried to get on the jury so that he could make sure they were convicted.
This series is yet another example of problems with our justice system. Even though new evidence surfaces, including DNA evidence, the judge rules that he will not allow a new trial. The case then goes to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010.
Due to a legal maneuver (the Alfred Plea) that I'm not sure I understand, the three were allowed to enter a plea which maintained their innocence but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. This was the only way that they could be released from prison. They were released in August of 2011 with time served plus 10 years probation.
While I am very happy that the three have been released, they still need their names cleared. It is so hard for me to understand why the legal system doesn't see what the rest of us see: Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols are not guilty of the murders of the three little boys. They have actually become three more victims of the original crime.
The documentary is available on HBO and definitely worth watching. We owe it to these young men to know their story. It is truly remarkable to see how brave they are and how they have accepted their situation without letting anger or resentment destroy them.