You may or may not have heard about Johnny Depp’s crusade. He has long been the most private of movie stars, but this Saturday night, he will break character when he appears on the CBS investigative news show 48 Hours Mystery to defend the West Memphis Three, who as teenagers were found guilty of the hideous 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Depp joins a handful of other entertainers — Eddie Vedder, Winona Ryder, the Dixie Chicks — who claim that the convicted killers are innocent, and that they were railroaded for the crime because of their associations with heavy-metal music, goth fashion, and the occult. One of the three, Damien Echols, is now on death row. (The other two, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, received life sentences.)
The reason that Damien became the focus of the case is that he was portrayed in court as a teenage satanist, which inflamed the community. Actually, he was a follower of Wicca — which may, in a place like West Memphis, seem interchangeable with “satanism.” Even so, that hardly makes him guilty.
I’m as skeptical as anyone when celebrities like Sean Penn pick and choose a cause to flaunt and lecture us about. It isn’t hard, though, to see why Johnny Depp has fastened onto Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three. There have always been innocents on death row, but the issue of people falsely incriminated by their association with subversive pop culture obviously touched a deep nerve in Depp. (As a comrade of Keith Richards, he’s had his own associations with devilish rockers, even if they are in their sixties.) In 17 years, there has never been forensic evidence linking Damien Echols, or any of the West Memphis Three, to this crime. What interests me about Depp’s appearance on 48 Hours is that it marks the re-opening of a case that has already been the subject of a memorable and disturbing movie: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s great 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. You have never seen anything quite like it.
Back in 1996, I reviewed the film for EW, and here’s some of what I said:
“The mesmerizing investigative documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills begins with a clip that may leave you gasping in horror and shock…The images are so graphically disturbing they leave us with an unflinching hunger to see the crime solved. That hunger mirrors the fear, dismay, and wrath within West Memphis itself, a Bible Belt community where matters of crime and punishment take on an apocalyptic cast.
Three teenage outcasts are arrested and put on trial. There’s no hard evidence linking them to the murders (though one has made a confession brimming with inconsistencies), and the implication is that they’ve been turned into scapegoats because they fit the image of satanic teen killers. The most fascinating of the three is a witchcraft/heavy-metal dandy named Damien Echols, and he is some piece of work…He looks like he belongs at a Tears for Fears reunion concert, and he seems to regard being on trial for murder as an imposition devised by lesser mortals…A gothic backwoods Rashomon, Paradise Lost inspires a gripping sense of moral vertigo. An abyss opens up before our eyes when John Mark Byers, the righteous, hymn-singing, cold-as-ice stepfather of one of the victims, suddenly becomes a suspect (after giving an incriminating knife to one of the filmmakers!).”
If you watch it, you’ll see that Paradise Lost is a movie that won’t let go of you. (It has the effect I was hoping for — and didn’t get — from sitting through all five overly murky hours of the Red Riding trilogy.) Berlinger and Sinofsky became so possessed by their subject that they made a sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), in which John Mark Byers stood before their cameras and went even further into creepy, questionable behavior. Is he still a potential suspect? And will 48 Hours present any fresh evidence — or just exploit the case, and its new celebrity advocate, to rehash old fears about the influence of satanic rock music on the hearts of our precious youth? You can bet I’ll be tuned in, hoping that Johnny Depp, and the show, will serve justice along with our voyeurism.