I know The Back Row isn’t a crime website, but since I just wrote a “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column last month about the documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, I felt it only appropriate to share this news. After 18 years in prison for the brutal murder of three young boys, a crime they probably didn’t commit, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, a.k.a. The West Memphis Three, were finally released yesterday. In a strange coincidence, I had just checked out Mara Leveritt’s excellent 2002 book, The Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, from the library to read more about the case when I suddenly heard this stunning news right out of the blue! Even though isn’t really movie-related news per se, this was even the top headline on the Internet Movie Database last night!
While I’m happy to see them free, I must say that I have bittersweet feelings about this situation. The West Memphis Three were NOT actually exonerated, but instead entered an Alford plea, meaning they could maintain their innocence while “officially” pleading guilty in exchange for their freedom. This means that they cannot sue the State for wrongful conviction. There was going to be an evidentiary hearing in December to determine whether or not the West Memphis Three would be given new trials and it’s obvious that the State felt their case would wind up falling apart, so they offered them this deal in order to cover their own asses and avoid the indignity of having to admit they were wrong all along. It’s sad that these three will never be compensated for their 18 years spent in prison, especially since they each came from low income families to begin with and are going to have a very difficult time starting over and rebuilding their lives after being incarcerated so long. Of course, the worst part is that by refusing to admit their mistake, the State is letting the REAL killer of those three young boys go unpunished! Hopefully, the West Memphis Three and their supporters will continue to fight for their innocence and see that justice is finally done.
Anyway, the whole situation is reminiscent of Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, which chronicled a man on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and played a large part in getting him exonerated one year after the film was released. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the makers of Paradise Lost, had to wait a lot longer and the eventual outcome wasn’t exactly what they hoped for, but their documentary did play a large part in garnering support for the West Memphis Three and eventually gettiing them released. A sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, came out in 2000 and a second sequel, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, is slated for release soon and was going to be premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, but the filmmakers are obviously going to have a do a lot of post-production tinkering before it comes out! Here’s a teaser for it: