Closing the book on the West Memphis Three

Between heaven and hell
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  January 5, 2012

"Some are happy, some are angry, and some are perplexed — and that's the case at the end of every trial. This one is no different," Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington tells the press in the conclusion to Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (HBO, January 12 at 9 pm), a third pass-through of the notorious West Memphis Three fiasco. At first glance, the grisly case of the WM3 does seem unique, a clusterfuck where justice was thwarted at every turn. But Ellington's quote also rings true, especially after the nearly two-hour slog leading up to the statement: in every trial, the more you spiral into the minutiae of the circumstances, the less sure you become of the possibility of a satisfactory outcome.

The Paradise Lost story began in 1993 with the discovery of the bodies of three West Memphis, Arkansas, children in a watery ditch, hogtied and mutilated. A confession led police to the arrest of three teenagers: Damon Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. The ensuing trial ended with life sentences for Baldwin and Misskelley and a death sentence for Echols.

That would have probably been that, if not for filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose 1996 HBO film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, brought the case to national consciousness. The film argued that the three teens were prosecuted more for their heavy-metal attire and musical tastes than for any actual evidence against them.

The trials created a massive uproar in West Memphis, in large part due to the community-wide fear that the murders were part of a rash of Satanic ritual activity. But that uproar was nothing compared to what happened when Paradise Lost hit the big time and massive celebrity-led campaigns began raising funds to free the Three. Berlinger and Sinofsky had hit a nerve, capturing a real-life modern-day Bible Belt Crucible, with Metallica soundtrack. The accused were metal fans and, culturally speaking, this was a blow against heavy metal's right to exist. The Three were in jail long enough for the "heavy metal is ruining our youth" movement to become irrelevant — in this post-9/11, post-Buffy world, when grandmothers walk around with skull-laden T-shirts, and vampires and zombies populate mainstream television and film, a world where it's almost quaint to see "wearing black" as a threat.

But Berlinger and Sinofsky aren't interested in a cultural critique; their focus has always been on the innocence of the accused. And so this film, like the first and second, combs again and again through the evidence, pulling threads from the sweater of the prosecution's case and pointing fingers at other targets. As with the prior two installments, the more you get sucked into the WM3 wormhole, the more sordid it becomes, as the motives and unflattering backstories of each player are revealed. That, and the bottomless depths of police tomfoolery, leave one with a hollow feeling when the Three finally emerge as free men following a surprise legal move.

The purgatory of the title would seem to allude to the time the Three spent behind bars, endlessly re-living their experiences in a Sisyphean series of appeals. In the end, they taste freedom, but with a twist: as part of their plea deal, all three had to plead guilty to the murders, while still on record maintaining their innocence. It's an ambiguous denouement, an arrangement that doesn't fully please anyone involved. The innocent may be free, but the dead are still dead, a community's trust has been eroded, and no one has been held accountable. Attorney Ellington is right: it is perplexing. But only in the banality of the case's nihilism. Maybe that's the true purgatory.

  Topics: Television , murders, Tennessee, Jail,  More more >
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