As the title reminds us, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the third documentary that filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have made about the West Memphis Three. These young men — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley — are shown being railroaded into the conviction for the murder of three little boys killed in 1993 in West Memphis, Ark. You don’t have to have seen the other two films (made in 1996 and 2000) to become engrossed in this true-crime story; the new movie depicts the lurid details and the filmmakers’ portrait of a slipshod investigation, and gives an update on the fate of the men who are most likely innocent.
To be brutally brief: Three kids were garishly murdered; three teens (whose penchant for heavy metal music made them easy targets) were arrested and convicted with what the film demonstrates to be flimsy evidence and flimsier testimony. The men attracted high-profile supporters, including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines. Purgatory presents new material that tracks how the convicted men have changed over the years. Echols had the good fortune to make contact with a supporter from Brooklyn, Lorri Davis; the two fell in love and married in a Buddhist ceremony while Echols was in prison. “It turned out to be the absolute best thing that has ever happened to me in my life,” says Echols. Baldwin seems to have changed the least — old footage of him as an articulate boy matches current interviews with him as an eloquent and markedly aged man who seems the most aware of the life that has been denied him by the Arkansas legal system.
As the filmmakers lay out the case, their biggest villain is the judge who presided over the trio’s conviction, David Burnett, for his refusal to grant a retrial based on new evidence, and repeated denials of the defendants’ appeals. You get the feeling Burnett may care more about professional reputation than about guilt and innocence. In one infuriating clip from the original Echols-Baldwin trial, he defends the prosecution’s use of a mail-order-degree “expert” in satanic rituals: “I’m not sure in Arkansas or any other state that you have to have [a] degree to be an expert in a particular field.”
After 18 years in jail, the West Memphis Three were released from prison in August 2011, having reluctantly agreed to a devil’s bargain of a plea: They had to admit guilt in court, while still publicly insisting on their innocence. Baldwin says he agreed primarily because he wanted to help Echols, the only one who was scheduled to be executed. “This was not justice,” he says. “I did not want to take the deal from the get-go. However, they’re trying to kill Damien, and sometimes you just gotta bite the gun to save somebody.” While much of Purgatory recaps heavily from the first two installments, it completes a set of three films, all works of documentary art that have had a palpable effect upon the world. The publicity these movies attracted helped set the West Memphis Three free. A-