Watching the Paradise Lost films makes me look at history in a different way. Specifically, I look back in wonder that a war was fought to keep the South from seceding. If we were trying to kick them out that would be one thing. Hell, I’d be on the front lines. But that so many people died so horribly so that one day I could say “I’m in the same country as Arkansas” is pretty hard to swallow.
If you don’t know, Paradise Lost documented the trial and conviction of three teenage boys for the murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas. The key piece of evidence was a confession elicited from one of the boys who was seventeen and has an IQ of 72. The recorded confession came after the boy spent twelve unrecorded hours with interrogators and without the presence of parents or legal representation. During that time, the kid passed a polygraph, but was told that he failed. The confession also contained gross factual errors and at least one clear instance of the police feeding the boy answers to questions. Although the police mention fiber evidence at one point, it seems as though that doesn’t pan out–although the film doesn’t address this issue satisfactorily. Other than that, there is no physical evidence against the teens. In fact, the prosecution presents a scenario that is physically impossible-the murder and severe mutilation of the boys is supposed to have left not a drop of blood at the murder site, although one of the boys lost five pints of blood. The main factor in the conviction of the teens-one of whom was sentenced to death and two of whom were sentenced to life in prison-seems to have been that they listened to metal and wore black. The theory was that they were part of a murderous satanic cult. Seriously.
The sequel picks up about five years later. One of the main topics is the impact of the first film, which brought international attention to the case. Since the boys were fans (which is part of the reason for their conviction), Metallica’s Kirk Hammett sent a note to Damien Echols, the kid sentenced to death-apparently not any money to help his under-funded defense though. Hey, those guys are busy with more important legal struggles, like suing Italian hubcap manufacturers for using the word ‘Metallica.’ (That really happened too.)
Anyway, a group of people who were interested in the case by the first film have formed an organization to raise money for and call attention to the case. They bring in a criminologist-type guy who works pro-bono. While going over the photos of the victims, he notices what appear to be bite marks on one of the boys. The marks don’t match imprints taken from the three convicts. This is, in part, the basis of an appeal. Experts for the state say that a belt buckle could have caused the mark. It’s annoying when laypeople see or read something like this and suddenly think they are experts on subjects like forensics. But at the same time, I can’t help but point out that I’ve never seen a belt buckle that is shaped so that it would leave marks like this. The mark is similar enough to a bite mark that it can be compared to the bites of the convicts and it also covers both the top and underside of the ridge of the victim’s forehead. In other words, to my eye it looks like this theoretical belt buckle must have been made out of a set of dentures.
We also catch up with the other chief suspect in the crime, Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the victims. Byers exhibits suspicious behavior, perhaps even more than in the first film. For example, we learn that he participated in a fight between two teens by arming one with a knife, then overseeing the fight while holding a shotgun. And his wife died–cause of death undetermined, although it’s pretty clear she either ODed or was poisoned. And he had all of his teeth removed and tells conflicting stories about the reason (remember the bite mark). And his neighbors had to get a restraining order against him because he hit their son. Byers submits to polygraph, but has about eight prescription drugs, including xanax, zoloft and tegratol in his system at the time. He also has a brain tumor (as he did at the time of the killings) that causes him to hallucinate. This guy is way, way out there. If Shirley McClain is on Venus, he’s on Planet X. He is easily the “star” of the film, making Christopher Walken look like Tom Hanks. If he weren’t real, he’d be a highly enjoyable character, although maybe not believable.
In fact, it’s hard to believe a lot of what happens in the film. Do local journalists actually ask supporters of the convicts if they are “part of Damien’s cult?” Was the defense really given $1,000 for scientific tests, research, expert witnesses and so forth? More to the point, can you really be sentenced to death for being a metal head? I mean, it would be one thing if these teens actually were black instead of just wearing black. Nobody would bat an eye then, but this is ridiculous. Check out this amazon.com review of the book on the case.
Reviewer: A reader from Fayetteville, AR Neither this book nor the two HBO documentaries tell all the facts of this case. They are all very biased for the defense. One of the reasons so many seem to think the so called “West Memphis Three” are innocent is because no one has yet to write a book about ALL the evidence at the trials. Damien Echols bragged days later about killing the boys. Eyewitnesses in court testified to this fact. (Uh, this was in the first movie. The claim came from two fifteen year old girls. Damien was in jail when the bragging was alleged to have occurred). He was also placed on the service road next to where the bodies were found around the time of the killings. The fact is that Echols got high and lead the other two into committing these crimes. In addition, there was much testimony from Echols himself about his owning and reading books about satan worship and human sacrifice. His supporters say he was a Wiccan, but Wiccans are not into torture and sacrifice. He admitted during cross examination about owning and reading these types of books glorifying the killing and sacrifice of children. If anyone pulls the court records and reviews ALL the evidence, they will have NO doubt these guys are guilty. –This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
So if you live in Arkansas, be fucking careful what you read. And while you’re at it, try to stir up sentiment in favor of trying secession again. I promise you, this time, no one will stand in your way–yes, even with your 10,000 Waffle Houses. Incidentally, I went through 10 pages of google and this was the best argument I could find for this point of view.
The film is very strong aesthetically. The outcome of Byers’ polygraph and the appeal are drawn out to maximize suspense. It works. It’s the first time I can remember actually having to struggle to keep from fast forwarding through a movie to find out what happens. Byers is one of the most memorable people ever to be on a screen. The film also does a pretty good job of recapping the content of the previous
film so you can get away with seeing this one on its on. I’d recommend seeing both though.
It’s tempting to skip these films because they are so infuriating. But for better (ha) or worse, Arkansas is part of the country which means you have a responsibility (if you’re a yank) to stay on top of this kind of shit. Watch the movies, then take a few minutes out of the hours you piss away on the net to send e-mails to the relevant people. Go to www.wm3.org to find out how. DVD extras include filmmaker bios and trailers for other documentaries. Blah.
Film Overall- 8.5
DVD Extras- 2