“All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield.”
– John Milton, Paradise Lost
“Free the West Memphis Three” was a slogan that reverberated throughout the past few decades. It came from several voices contesting the incarceration of Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelly Jr. and Jason Baldwin, who were convicted of a triple homicide in 1993. Their ordeal, while compelling, might have never received considerable mainstream attention if not for Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills (1996). A documentary directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, it was the first in a trilogy to examine the case, trial, imprisonment, and the ongoing quest for exoneration.
Although they were released from prison in 2011, many questions regarding the case are still unanswered. The speculation regarding their guilt or innocence is a divisive topic, and like many criminal trials, several people continue to debate the verdict. While you might have your own opinions on the case and a full transcript of the trial is easily available, the purpose of this essay is not to examine every aspect in regards to it. This is merely a look at the events as shown through the eyes of the filmmakers. Any documentary should present evidence in support of a thesis with a certain level of objectivity. That being said, there’s no denying the events of the first film reflect a time period of moral hysteria.
1993 was at the tail end of a cultural backlash known as Satanic Panic. The previous decade had witnessed a widespread epidemic of paranoia that not only permeated the talk shows and tabloids but was also at the forefront of popular culture. Stories of ritual abuse and satanic cults were just about everywhere. The most notable of these was the trial of the McMartin Preschool, where several children made allegations of abuse against the staff, all of which were later proven false. They ranged from stories of underground tunnels and flying witches to molestation and bestiality. Though utterly ridiculous, they were the basis of a court case that lasted for over three years.
During this time period, many teenagers found a new outlet for their aggression. It came in the form of metal groups such as Venom, Slayer, and Mercyful Fate. Their albums were full of anthems that sang the praises of the cloven-hoofed antihero and fueled the ongoing fight against authority figures and the establishment. Not surprisingly, Paradise Lost in anchored by the music of Metallica, a band loved by Echols and Baldwin in particular.
Not everyone was keen about the messages and themes that these albums projected. The genre itself was constantly under fire throughout the decade, which culminated in the PMRC hearings, where the lyrical content from several groups were examined for being offensive or obscene. Even Judas Priest were brought into civil court to defend accusations that subliminal messaging in their music coerced a pair of teenagers into a dual suicide pact. This ongoing controversy played itself out in horror films such as Trick or Treat (1986) and Hack-O-Lantern (1988), which further linked Satanism and heavy metal together as an unholy union practiced by testosterone-crazed adolescents.
“I am possessed by all that is evil
The Death of your god I command
I spit at the virgin you worship
And sit at lord Satan’s left hand.”
– Venom, “Possessed”
The melting pot of hysteria reached a boiling point in West Memphis, Arkansas on the sixth of May 1993. The bodies of three eight-year-old children, Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Beyers were discovered in a wooded area known as the Robin Hood hills. The children had been found naked and savagely beaten, with their arms and legs hog-tied by shoelaces. Beyers’ genitalia had been mutilated, and law enforcement assumed that the children had been sexually assaulted. The crimes were not only horrific, but they appeared to confirm every fear that the previous decade had managed to cultivate. For a community at the heart of the Bible Belt, the triple homicide had all the trappings of a satanic ritual murder.
A confession given to police by Misskelly implicated Echols and Baldwin and it seemed the authorities had their culprits. The confession itself is something that’s been highly contested. On one hand, Misskelly had an IQ barely above 70, and there are accusations that a police department, desperately looking for closure, coerced him into talking. There are also reports that Misskelly confessed on other occasions of his own volition. Whatever might have happened, his confession and evidence that was circumstantial at best was enough for an indictment. Before either side could make an opening statement, the three were most likely found guilty in the court of public opinion. Local news reports hinted at the possibility of satanic activity in the area, and implicated Echols as having a “pact with the devil.” From what the documentary shows us of their environment, it’s easy to see that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly would have stuck out like sore thumbs and been easy targets.
From the very beginning, Paradise Lost offers up a portrait of West Memphis that closely reflects it’s conservative values and evangelical Christian ethics. It’s a typical working-class community, populated by what’s often described as the salt of the earth. A place where churches are found on every street corner and morality is expected and strongly upheld. Anything not conforming to this standard would have most likely been looked down upon and ostracized. One person who reflects this general outlook, and who will become a strong presence throughout the trilogy is John Mark Beyers. A father of a murdered son and devout evangelical, he shamelessly plays up for the cameras and continually fires off religious rants and threats of violence against the trio. In a perfect example of how rumor and innuendo about the case permeated the community, he speaks of ‘wild homosexual orgies’ the three engaged in and the preposterous idea that the remains of his sons’ genitalia were found in Echols’ possession. (Neither of which were true for obvious reasons.) The arrest of the West Memphis Three must have come across to many that the depictions of Satanism in the media were true after all. As Pam Hobbs (mother of Steve Branch) says in an interview, “Look at them… they look like punks.”
Although the police investigation isn’t shown in great detail, the confession of Misskelly is something that’s debated on within the film. Paradise Lost takes the side of the defense that the police most likely coerced the young man through long hours of interrogation by taking advantage of his low IQ. Misskelly was tried separately from Echols and Baldwin, and there’s no denying that his trial feels rushed. In the end, Misskelly receives a life sentence, plus forty years. Something that gets brought up often is Misskelly allegedly confessed to his involvement multiple times. While that might have been the case, it’s not explored in any of the Paradise Lost documentaries. It should also be noted that Misskelly was given a chance to testify against Echols and Baldwin in exchange for a lighter sentence, but declined.
Without the use of Misskelly’s confession or his testimony, the prosecution proceeds with the trial of Echols and Baldwin. The evidence gathered against the two is circumstantial, and the arguments presented to provide a link between the murders and the occult is hardly convincing. The testimony from occult ‘expert’ Dale Griffis is hardly on a credible level, and it appears laughable that he would be allowed to give any significant input on the matter. Although the defense attempts to discredit him as a witness by pointing out his degrees have all come from correspondence schools, the damage was most likely done. Griffis was underqualified in both knowledge and experience, but because he was known for appearing on television programs from as early as 1985, it’s more than likely that members of the jury recognized him and assumed he was correct. If anything, Griffis is the living embodiment of the hysteria from the time period.
The cross-examination of Echols is shown to be ineffective in dissuading any jury members from prejudices that were likely established before the trial. While his attempts at describing some of the concepts behind Wicca are noble in their intention of proving he isn’t a Satanist, they’re more than likely lost on the jury, who wouldn’t have the ability to differentiate between the two. Although the trial was relocated several miles away from West Memphis, it’s safe to assume that most of the jury would still be prejudicial. Anything involving occultism in any way would carry the stigma of satanic panic with it.
For all of the prosecutions alleged expertise in establishing that the crimes were motivated by ritual, they make one blunder that’s quite noticeable to anyone who’s familiar with the writing of Alistair Crowley. As the cross-examination of Echols continues, they inquire about his knowledge of Crowley. One point that’s brought up during the conversation is Crowley’s alleged advection of child sacrifice. Although this is meant to establish Echols’ possible motive for committing the murders, there’s a slight irony. Crowley, who often wrote in code, used the term ‘child sacrifice’ to describe the act of ejaculation.
John Beyers plays a unique role during the trial. It’s during the proceedings where he goes from being a sympathetic parent and boisterous camera hog to the biggest red herring to ever appear on film. During the filming of Paradise Lost, Beyers gave a knife to the film crew as a gift. The blade was turned over to police after a substance that might have been blood was found on it. It’s here where the defense begins to speculate that Beyers might have had a possible role in the murders, a theory that was further explored in the second Paradise Lost film. While interesting, it comes across as the defense team attempting to raise reasonable doubt regarding their clients.
As the trial approaches its resolution, both Echols and Baldwin are shown as being confident that they’ll be acquitted. The closing arguments given by the prosecution come across as echoing the backlash from the past decade. Attorney John Fogleman, in particular, brings up heavy metal and Satanism while describing the teenagers. For all intents and purposes, the statement feels like a blatant attempt at preying upon phobias that some members of the jury could possibly have.
Echols and Baldwin were both found guilty on three counts of capital murder. While Baldwin received a life sentence, Echols was given the death penalty. There’s no doubt in my mind that had this documentary not been released, his sentence would have ultimately been carried out. In the film’s conclusion Echols proclamation of becoming the ‘boogey man’ of West Memphis shows his immaturity, and somewhat foreshadows events to come. In just a few short years, the teenager and convicted murderer would ultimately become a poster child for many alienated members of America’s youth culture and develop a reverence normally reserved for rock stars and actors.