Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills [DVD]
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Berlinger and Sinofsky's documentary about a gruesome triple murder in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent trials of three suspects, takes a hard look at both the occult and the American justice system in 'small-town' America.
Three teenagers are accused of the horrific crime of killing three children, supposedly as a result of their involvement in Satanism. However, as the film demonstrates things are far more complex that they first appear, as it sets out to explore prejudice and the price we pay to be different.
Multiple award winner including an EMMY
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Top Customer Reviews
treat those who are outsiders or 'different'.
When three very young boys are found brutally murdered, and mutilated,
the town of West Memphis demands retribution and closure. So, after
some fruitless weeks of police work, the suspects become three outsider
teen-age boys, who listened to heavy metal, and the oldest of whom dressed
(somewhat) Goth and was interested in Wicca.
A strong indictment of how, at least some of the time in our justice system
'guilty until proved innocent' is the rule.
That said, the film makes some serious miss-steps by not being clearer
about some of the evidence it brings up, but never explores. For
example, we're told early on by the filmmakers that all 3 boys had
alibis for the night of the killing, yet we never hear about it again.
Are their defense lawyers THAT bad, or were the alibis not solid? Two
said they were home with their families, yet the families never mention
being with them that night. Similarly, we are never told why the police
picked up the first of the boys, a borderline mentally retarded kid,
who clearly didn't know what was going on, for questioning. The
implication was that the cops wanted an easy pliable target, but the
issue is never explored either by the defense, or by the film-makers.
In a 150 minute movie, there's no need for those kind of loose ends,
leaving us to question whether we've seen a fair reporting of what went
on, or if there really was more evidence against the kids than we're
Still it's a powerful and important examination of how we in the US often
rush to judgment, socially and legally.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
First, please allow me to correct a few misconceptions from some of the other reviewers.
The Michael Moore mentioned in the credits refers to one of the little eight-year-old child murder victims, not the filmmaker.
A couple of reviewers mentioned a necklace worn by Damien Echols which supposedly had blood on it from some of the victims. Actually, nothing more determinable than common blood types was found. One almost microscopic spot on the pendant was consistent with the blood type of Damien Echols (one of the accused), the other micro-spot was consistent with the blood type shared by both Jason Baldwin (one of the accused) and Steven Branch (one of the eight-year-old victims) -- as well as 11% of the rest of the Caucasian population of the United States. All experts agree that tiny micro-spots of blood can be transferred by a number of ways--especially a teenage boy wearing the necklace against their bare skin. Police photos verify that Jason Baldwin had also worn Damien's necklace. Police photos taken two days after the crime--show Damien without his shirt and reveal absolutely no cuts, abrasions or scratches whatsoever.
The closest thing to credible evidence the prosecution could manage to produce were four very tiny fibers found in the houses of Damien's family and Jason's family which were deemed by the prosecution to be microscopically similar to fibers from two of the victims. But even the prosecution's expert witness, Lisa Sakevicius a criminologist from the State's Crime Laboratory acknowledged that this was inconclusive and could have just as well come from mass-produced products obtained off the shelves of the local Wal-Mart. Furthermore, Charles Linch of the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas refuted the claims of microscopic similarities in his testimony. No fibers whatsoever were found in the home of Jessie's family.
During the appeal process forensic scientists examining the crime scene photos and autopsy photos identified human bite marks on two of the victims. This was confirmed by a forensic odontologist. Teeth impressions were taken from the three young men in prison. None of these teeth impressions from Damien, Jason and Jessie matched these bite marks found on the victims.
The highly coerced "confession" from Jessie Misskelly Jr. (a 17-year-old borderline retarded boy with an IQ of 71) was so filled with obvious errors that it is an obscenity that it was treated as the basis for making these arrest. I should mention that this so-called "confession" came after submitting this boy to a 12 hour grueling without lawyers, parents or counsel of any kind and included a polygraph test which he had passed but was told by the police that he had failed. Judge Burnett would not allow the jury to hear about these interrogation techniques.
Jessie Misskelly Jr. refused to testify in court against Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols stating that he simply "was not going to get up there and tell a bunch of lies". This was in spite of an offer to remove his life sentence.
Read Dan Stidham's (Jessie's lawyer) case synopsis by copying and pasting the web address below:
The scenario painted by the police and the prosecutors against the three teenagers is simply a scientific impossibility. How on earth could there have been the massive blood loss caused by ceremonial satanic cult killings of three persons in the middle of the night without leaving one single micro-speck of blood or any other body fluids at the scene? Did they sneak in the FBI Forensic Team to clean up after them when nobody was looking? Luminal testing could reveal blood presence only where the police had laid or transported the bodies. It should also be mentioned that none of the scarce shoe prints at the scene matched Jason, Jessie or Damien either. .
For a scientific view--see this crime scene analysis and profile by one of America's leading forensic scientist which also gives some insight on who might have actually committed the crime. I must warn you - it is a bit gruesome to say the least:
Copy and paste this web address:
So let us briefly summarize. Much of the so-called evidence was based on the notion that Damien admitted an interest in the Wicca religion and the occult which many local people perceived as Satanism. This is not evidence of committing murder. You can go to any suburban shopping mall bookstore or small town library anywhere in Middle America and find plenty of books on such subjects. Furthermore, neither Jason nor Jessie had ever expressed any particular interest in Wicca or the occult.
Both Damien and Jason wore mostly black clothes and loved heavy metal music. So what? The police actually confiscated 15 black T-shirts from Jason's home as evidence to prove God knows what.
Damien was undoubtedly a troubled teenager from a troubled family. He was a bit of a wise-ass teenager. He wrote some morbid poetry. So what?
A couple of young girls claimed months after the fact that they had heard Damien say that he committed the murders. Any reasonable-objective person listening to those testimonies would have found them implausible to put it politely.
A young burglar/drug addict who was in the juvenile detention facility claimed that the shy and reserved 16-year-old Jason confessed to him the second time they ever met ghastly stories about drinking blood from the genitals of a murdered child while worshipping the devil. The counselor from that facility warned the prosecution that this young man was not credible and gave them detailed reasons. And there is no evidence that Jason and this young man ever met. Even if they did--the story is ridiculous. Still, Judge Burnett would not allow the jury to hear counter-testimony or information that could have challenged the credibility of this witness.
The so-called "confession" of Jessie and the scenario put forward by the police and prosecution would have involved massive amounts of blood left at the scene. There was not even one tiny micro-spec. That is a physical impossibility.
The simple fact is ALL FORENSICS were either exonerating or completely inconclusive.
"There was a lack of physical evidence to tie anyone or anything to the crime scene."
--John Fogleman, prosecutor of the West Memphis Three--
Sadly, the West Memphis Police would not do anything more than a cursory and disinterested investigation of the most obvious suspect. (See the forensic profile mentioned above) Probably because that obvious suspect who had a violent history including family violence and a lifetime as a penny-anny career criminal was also an undercover narcotic informant who was in a very tight relationship with the West Memphis Police.
Anyway, for God sakes--see this film along with Paradise Lost 2 and read Devils Knot. .
This is not a political film. This case has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, left or right or even whether you support or oppose the death penalty. I hope that we of all political persuasion agree that locking up the wrong people and letting the real killers get away is a very bad idea.
For an in-depth analysis of all details of this case-see these two websites. And if it touches your conscience please consider trying to help:
Not that it's in my list of all-time favorite films; it's just that this is the kind of film that really knocks you back: it'll change your mind about a few things and really make you think. You won't be able to forget it.
Have you ever been in a plane when, just for second, it abruptly loses some altitude, and your stomach seems like it dropped through the floor? You're gonna feel like that for a couple of days or so after seeing this movie.
Without telling you too much, here's what you need to know: there has been a murder in rural Arkansas, and some local boys who don't quite fit in (i.e., they have been dressing in black and listening to Metallica) are fingered for it. The film, a gut-wrenching documentary, follows them through their trial and analyzes the evidence for and against their innocence. The film is especially recommended if you enjoy documentaries that get into forensic evidence.
I'm sure this happens a lot, but in this particular case the three boys had the good fortune of having HBO make a documentary about the trials while they were happening. Ever since then, they've had a big following of people who -- while perhaps not saying the three are innocent -- at least insist they were given capital sentences on some rather flimsy evidence. If you love stories of where the American justice system really goes off the rails -- not in one aspect or incident but systematically -- this film will be hard to match.
But I would like to point out that those baying for the blood of Byers or Hobbs should stop to reflect that, if the tables were somehow turned and THOSE GUYS had wound up in the slammer, in theory the same outrage would obtain: man locked up on flimsy evidence. Yet something tells me that, since neither of those guys are Wiccans or listen to Metallica, there wouldn't have been such a brou-ha-ha about a horrendous miscarriage of justice.
What I'm saying is that one's anger should be directed at the justice system, not against those against whom there is still -- even now -- rather slender evidence. If Byers were thrown in prison on nothing more than what they currently have against him, would you be equally outraged? I doubt it.
I point this out to suggest that much of the outrage over this case is not actually outrage at the justice system malfunctioning, but rather a way of signalling support for a trio of young goth-dressing misfits.
There was, in addition, a direct-to-video followup film: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations.
No connection, incidentally, with the Milton epic.
UPDATE: These guys have finally been released. (Parenthetically, wouldn't it be funny if, years from now, one of them admitted that they actually did it?)
What happened in this case could be called a modern day Witch hunt that was fueled by paranoia, lurid rumor, wild speculation and rush to judgment that led to the convictions of three innocent youth simply because they happened to be different from those in their community. So while this is also the story of three young boys who were murdered, which is tragic enough in itself, it is also one of three others that are being murdered by a legal system corrupted by ignorance, prejudice and hate. That there is absolutely no physical evidence of any kind linking any of the three to the murders should be alarming in itself to anyone who has any faith in the American legal system, and considering that the three were convicted solely on the weight of a coerced confession, which was later recanted, these facts should make any reasonable person seriously question what happened here. Not surprisingly, the same police officers who coerced a confession from Jessie Misskelly, a person who also suffers from mild retardation, have totally ignored the possibility of any other suspects and have deliberately destroyed evidence that contradicts the story they concocted. In addition, it is obvious to any observer of the case that even the judge seemed to have a preconceived opinion of the defendant's guilt and decided against them time and time again to ensure their convictions. Am I saying this is some vast police conspiracy carried out to wreck the lives of three young men, whose only crime was being different? No, but what I am saying is that when law enforcement officials adhere to a win at all cost mentality the first victim of such tactics is always truth and after that is dispensed with justice always follows, piling injustice upon injustice, tragedy upon tragedy, while the real murderer or murderers remains free. Doesn't the innocent victims of these heinous crimes deserve better than this? Where is their justice?
What can we really say about our precious freedoms and are great legal code when people who are different from us are still being persecuted for no other reason than their differences, just as they were in Salem in 1691? Is it a crime to listen to Metallica and wear black clothes? Is it a crime to read books written by Anne Rice and Aleister Crowley? Is it a crime to be interested in Wicca? As this case sadly illustrates, in some parts of this country apparently it is, and if new trials or clemency is not granted soon, the penalty for their deviations from the accepted "norms" will be death for Damien Echols, while Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin will most likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. If this is allowed to happen can we really say we live in a fair and just society, can we really say that we are truly free?
Onto the video. I'd say the main bias I noted was that the documentary had a very apparent goal of making most of the citizens of West Memphis appear as backwoods and backwards as possible. That said, as the investigation and trial procedures come into play, one cannot deny the ignorance and carelessness which led to the fate of the West Memphis Three.
The injustices depicted in this documentary are positively heartbreaking. Even thinking abstractly that the U.S. court system can be corrupt, it is hard to imagine a circus of a case like this existing outside of the world of fiction. It's definitely left an impression on me; I've continued to research the case and simply can't get it out of my mind.
For a more detailed account of this case, I suggest the book "Devil's Knot," which goes to greater lengths to show Damien Echols' darker side as well, which lends an impartisanship which was somewhat lacking in the documentary. However, the book only makes one more certain of the conclusions drawn from the documentary.
in the quiet town of west memphis, arkansas, three young boys were found brutally tortured and murdered in 1993 with almost no evidence left at the crime scene. after a high profile investigation with no progress, the local police finally arrested three teenagers who would later be known as the west memphis three: damien echols, jason baldwin, and jessie misskelley, jr. the three outsiders wore black clothing, listened to heavy metal music, read unpopular books, and consequently their behavior was considered strange by the community around them. this was enough to get much of the community up in arms against the west memphis three before the trial even began.
what really struck me about this case was the sheer poverty of evidence here. the only real piece of evidence was misskelley's taped confession; everything else was circumstantial and shaky at best. misskelley had a low iq of 72, was questioned by the police for about 12 hours without a lawyer present, and then had his confession taped at the very end of that interrogation after professing his innocence for most of that time. the confession tape clearly showed the police's questions were leading misskelley to say what the police wanted. misskelley confessed to aiding in the murder of the three young victims during the daytime only to have the police turn around and suggest the murders were at night. after that suggestion, misskelley changed his confession to suit the police's story. misskelley also got other details about the crime incorrect in his "confession." these inconsistencies suggest that misskelley confessed only because he just wanted to go home after 12 hours of relentless interrogation and was willing to just agree with whatever the police wanted him to say. i couldn't believe the jurors in arkansas not only convicted the west memphis three, but even sentenced one of them to death on such scanty evidence. certainly there was ample reasonable doubt here.
religion had a large part to play in the jurors' decisions. in the aftermath of the crime, the mostly christian community was wrapped up in hysteria about satanic cults. they saw the devil's work in these three teenage outsiders and simply had no more room for reason and logic. watch "paradise lost" and see the sheer level of hate and vitriolic punishments some of these so-called christians had in mind for the west memphis three before guilt was even determined by the law. the masses could just peer into the eyes and souls of the west memphis three and they just knew the accused were guilty! the religious insanity even bled into the court proceedings, with the prosecution asking questions about damien echol's name, asking whether it was satanic in origin as influenced by dark hollywood movies ("the omen"). it is absurd and downright embarrassing for this to happen in a modern court of justice.
the west memphis three were robbed of much of their time on this earth because they happened to live amongst paranoid, irrational, emotional people who allow religion to get the better of rationality. it frightens me to know such people are deciding the fates of accused parties in courtrooms every day, especially if the death penalty is an option. if you happen to live in such a community, watch this documentary series and then consider moving somewhere more civilized.