Paradise Lost By: Steven reinhardt

"I knew from when I was real small people were gonna know who I was, I always had that feeling... I just never knew how they were gonna learn. I kind of enjoy it now because even after I die, people are gonna remember me forever. People are gonna talk about me for years. People in West Memphis will tell their kids stories... It'll be sorta like I'm the West Memphis boogie man. Little kids will be looking under their beds Damien might be under there!" -Damien Echols

On 6 May 1993, the bodies of three young boys were found near a muddy creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. The brutal murder of the three boys outraged the conservative West Memphis community and made headlines throughout the South and Midwest. In fact, the murders garnered so much media attention that they would remain on the minds of individuals around the world—not because of the three boys who were murdered, but because of the three young men who were convicted in 1993 and 1994 for their murders.

Under intense media and public pressure, the West Memphis police department arrested teens Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin for the murders of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. The resulting trial would go down in American legal history thanks to a documentary shot by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for HBO called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

The first Paradise Lost documentary, released in 1996, was followed by two sequels, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011). The three landmark documentaries have now been released by Docurama as the Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector’s Edition DVD set. Offering more than seven hours of documentary footage and extras, the Paradise Lost Trilogy Collector’s Edition is the definitive chronicle of the trial and subsequent legal struggles of Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin, popularly known as the West Memphis Three (WM3).

Docurama’s DVD set includes all three documentaries with their original special features repackaged alongside a bonus materials disc. The set also includes a 20-page booklet of original photographs with annotations by Joe Berlinger. The three documentaries are incredibly powerful, in part thanks to their consistent shooting and styling. Berlinger and Sinofsky incorporate their own original footage, as well as footage from local and national newscasts, to construct the story of the three murdered boys and the three accused killers. Songs by Metallica are used throughout all three documentaries in accordance with the heavy metal-Satanism-ritual sacrifice line of thought that ran throughout the trial and has long been blamed for the wrongful convictions of Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin.

While all three documentaries work together seamlessly as one narrative, they each have their own particular strengths and stylistic markers. It is this unique yet cohesive nature that makes the new Docurama set particularly strong and a must-have for legal documentary enthusiasts. As a whole, the three documentaries stand up to the Werner Herzog classic The Thin Blue Line in terms of power and, in the end, real-world effectiveness.

The sentiments of Jessie Misskelley’s Jr.‘s father predict the theme of the first Paradise Lost documentary. This initial documentary, filmed on location in West Memphis, Arkansas, largely followed the trials of the three accused killers. Some of the earliest court scenes focus on the separate trial of Jessie Misskelley Jr., where the mentally impaired teen’s supposed confession was debated at length. Viewers at the time were so compelled by the coercion of Misskelley and the Echols-Baldwin trial that many joined the West Memphis Three Support Fund, spearheaded by organizers on the West Coast who were dismayed by a perceived miscarriage of justice in the trial.

Paradise Lost uses a balance of interviews from the prosecution and defense, offset by footage of the parents of the three murdered boys and the three accused murderers. John Mark Byers, the father of Christopher Byers, figures prominently in this documentary and in those that follow. The filmmakers make a serious effort to examine a phenomenon known as “Satanic Panic,” which was used to blame innocent outsiders for heinous crimes throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Viewed 20 years later, this trend seems particularly harrowing and, at times, silly.

Perhaps the strongest footage in this initial documentary revolves around the supposed criminal mastermind of the group, Damien Echols. Accused of being a practicing Satanist, the young man is put on trial as much for his beliefs, appearance and musical preferences as he is for the murder of the three young boys. His mindset is so influenced and altered by the proceedings that he at one time tells the filmmakers that he is “the West Memphis boogeyman. Little kids’ll be lookin’ under their beds before they go to bed, Damien might be under there…”

Marketed with the tagline Witchcraft or Witch Hunt?, the original Paradise Lost documentary remains as poignant today as it did at its release nearly 20 years ago.

“I think the cops just can’t find who done it, and they gotta put it on somebody.” -Jesse Misskelly

Paradise lost 3: Purgatory

The final installment in the Paradise Lost trilogy revisits the three convicted men, associated law enforcement personnel, attorneys and parents almost two decades after the child murders in Robin Hood Hills. Aptly titled Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, this installment in the series chronicles the deep-rooted anger of all parties involved in the West Memphis Three case. Police detectives and judges defend their light-on-evidence case while Echols, Misskelley Jr. and Baldwin maintain their innocence and work with their lawyers towards their release from prison. Though the three were released from custody in 2011, the legacy of the case still haunts their lives. Purgatory provides a strong finish to the series and leaves viewers wondering if three men in their 30's who have spent the last 17 years in prison can even lead so-called normal lives.

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