When Good Isn’t Good Enough

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

What I wanted — nay, needed — from the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was the singularity of purpose that gave Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line its urgency. I’m not fond of Morris’ overly artful 1988 movie — with its incessant slo-mo flying milkshake — but it was so focused on correcting an injustice that it could not be denied. As a result, a wrongful capital-murder conviction was overturned.

It seems likely that a similar miscarriage of justice took place in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1994. Three teenagers were convicted that year of the brutal 1993 murders of a trio of eight-year-old boys. They’re still in prison today, one with a death sentence hanging over his head.

Physical evidence linking the teens to the crime scene was meager and circumstantial. Based on the representations of the two criminal trials in Paradise Lost, juries convicted one of the teens (Jessie Misskelley) on the basis of his highly suspect confession, and two (Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin) mostly because Echols claimed to practice Wicca. (For more information on the case, look here.)

But the movie isn’t an attack on the prosecution, or a point-by-point dismantling of the cases against the accused trio, now known as the West Memphis Three. Instead of being The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost is The Thin Blue Line diluted by the “local color” tone and patient methods of Morris’ Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida — two odd little slices of American eccentricity. Paradise Lost seems to aspire to the nuance and ambiguity that Capturing the Friedmans achieved years later, but the stakes are so much higher here — and the truth seems so much more clear — that the strategy is a gross miscalculation.

Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky generally build their documentaries on access — their uncanny ability to get their cameras in places cameras normally don’t go. In Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the pair filmed the band’s therapy sessions. In Paradise Lost, they show intimate moments of the families of both the victims and the accused, along with courtroom footage.

Like Vernon, Florida, the movie smacks of condescension. Couldn’t the filmmakers find one person in West Memphis who doesn’t have a mullet, splayed, brown teeth, or both? Couldn’t they find one person who doesn’t gleefully demonize the West Memphis Three just because the cops said they did it? Does no child in West Memphis live with both biological parents? Doesn’t anybody in the town understand that Metallica does not equal satanism? Does no one get that teenagers dabble — mostly harmlessly and meaninglessly — in whatever their parents forbid, and that it does not make them evil, or likely to murder and mutilate children? I refuse to believe that even the most backward backwater is this wrongheaded, but that’s the impression the filmmakers create. Berlinger and Sinofsky seem more interested in convicting West Memphis than in freeing Misskelley, Echols, and Baldwin.

It’s particularly distressing that the co-directors don’t seem to recognize the gravity of the situation, or the power they have to change it. If they had made a more forceful movie — one that ripped apart this case they clearly think is so flimsy — they might have actually freed the accused. Instead, they crafted a portrait of a community with its innards exposed. It seems obvious enough that when it’s a matter of freedom, decades in prison, and death, one shouldn’t fuck around, but they do.

All this is to say that Paradise Lost is an irresponsible movie, but it’s by no means a bad one. It opens with dispassionate crime-scene footage shot by police, featuring the naked, lifeless bodies of the victims. That sets the tone for the documentary: clinical, detached, and quietly watchful, not in the least indignant or incendiary.

Two fascinating figures stand apart from the rest: John Mark Byers — the stepfather of one of the victims — and Echols.

Byers performs for the camera, offering wide-eyed, elaborate descriptions of how he will defile the graves of the accused. In one scene, he’s shown shooting a pumpkin, pretending his targets are the suspects. He sings a solo at church, and initially seems to be somebody who simply does not know how to deal with his overwhelming grief.

Yet at the trial of Echols and Baldwin, a different person emerges. When he testifies, he’s subdued, almost resigned. He admits that he beat his stepson with a belt just a few hours before his death. It’s revealed that he gave the filmmakers a knife (as a gift!), and it turned out to have human blood on it — blood that matched his son’s type. His explanation of his differing accounts of how that blood might have gotten on the knife is less than convincing.

Byers looks like the guy who got away with the crime and can’t help flaunting it. The knife emerged as evidence long after the suspects were charged but before the trials, and while giving the blade might seem an immensely stupid act, it actually shows Byers to be perceptive and smart.

Once the West Memphis Three were arrested and charged, after all, police and prosecutors had a clear interest in seeing them convicted, truth be damned. Byers knew that unless the blade proved that he killed the three boys — a tall order — prosecutors and police were in too deep with the teenagers to retreat. And he knew that in a community that was clearly infected with a frenzied mob mentality, a plausible alternative suspect such as him still wouldn’t constitute reasonable doubt in the minds of a jury.

Yet even though Byers is an easy scapegoat, Echols remains problematic. Among the West Memphis Three, he’s the only one who’s remotely articulate. Misskelley has an IQ of 72, and Baldwin is a cipher; he speaks so little, and so softly, that he doesn’t seem all there, either. If these teens had anything to do with the murders, Echols was certainly the mastermind.

And there is doubtlessly darkness in him. While his co-defendants act like teenagers in deep shit, Echols is eerily, preternaturally composed and calm in the face of likely execution. In one damning shot, he’s shown intently inspecting and grooming his hair during a break in the trial. There’s not a trace of anxiety or agitation in his body or his expression, bringing to mind the maxim that the guilty sleep well because they know they’ve been caught.

What might be most troubling about Echols is that he refuses to play the game that a jury needs to return a not-guilty verdict; even though he testifies at his trial, he doesn’t try to sell his innocence, instead picking an intellectual argument about Wicca and the occult with a prosecutor. He seems to be asking to be found guilty.

But it’s still unlikely that Echols is guilty, even though he sometimes says ill-considered things — such as his comment that he’s the West Memphis bogeyman — and makes dumb jokes at inappropriate times. So what’s going on in his head?

Byers and Echols are so compelling in part because they represent a larger cultural illness in West Memphis and in most of the United States — a certain corruption of the collective soul, a world in which the social contract has deteriorated to the point that it’s no longer recognizable. It’s bad enough that people kill each other, but it seems somehow worse that murder sets in motion a chain reaction that seems to stain everybody. The civilized concepts of thoughtful justice, mercy, and forgiveness have all but disappeared, and even the idea of healing seems foreign.

In its waning moments, Paradise Lost simply broke my heart. The sadness came from different places: that those children were murdered, that two juries couldn’t see the reasonable doubt that stared them in the face, and that a community could be so filled with bloodlust that it seemed to take genuine pleasure in the dubious convictions of the West Memphis Three.

I don’t want to deny the victims’ families or the community their grief, their anger, and even their desire for vengeance. What struck me deeply was that their need for neat and easy closure — no matter how unjust — was so great that it most likely took the lives of three other innocent people.

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