On May 6 1993, the bodies of three children, missing from the day before, were discovered in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas, a small local wood. The children had been, stripped, severely mutilated and in the case of Christopher Byers, the genitals had been removed.
The crime shocked the West Memphis community and the pressure was on the local police to come up with the killers. Deciding that the murders had a Satanic, ritual aspect, they focussed their investigation on a couple of local kids who liked Metallica and wore black t-shirts. They managed to extract a confession out of one of the teenagers, Jessie Misskelley, who has an IQ of 72 and was arguably mentally impaired, after 12 hours of interviewing without guardians or legal representation. Only 45 minutes of that testimony was recorded. He implicated himself together with Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, who were tried and convicted of murder the following year, despite no physical evidence and Jessie Misskelley retracting his statement.
Filmmakers from HBO were given unprecedented access during the trial, producing an award-winning documentary called Paradise Lost which aired on TV in 1996. The film throws doubt on the prosecution assertion that the defendants were involved at all, and they were simply victims of a hysterical witch hunt targeting mythical devil-worshippers.
Amongst the most hysterical voices is that of Christopher Byers’ stepfather John Mark Byers, who visits the site were the bodies were found and spouts a melodramatic mix of biblical prose and invective for the benefit of the camera crew, saying that he will defecate on the graves of Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols. It’s absurd and over the top, going far beyond the reactions you’d expect from a grieving parent, friend or guardian. Similarly, at a shooting range, John Mark Byers loads an old black powder revolver—after letting us know that the bullets could never be successfully traced back to the gun—takes aim at a pumpkin and blasts it apart, pretending he’s shooting the defendants. The threat of brutal revenge hangs over the proceedings at all times.
One of the few voices of reason in the documentary is actually that of Damien Echols, whose intelligent comments and assessments of his situation accurately puncture the hysteria surrounding the case. We also witness the meetings of the defence team, who realise that the prosecution have presented a flimsy case that relies on a single unreliable confession but seem powerless to stop a miscarriage of justice from occurring.
The police investigation is riddled with flaws. Their submission that the children were murdered at the location doesn’t appear to hold up to the physical evidence, specifically a complete absence of blood, despite vicious wounds that would drench the area in it. The Police’s assertion that the defendants washed the blood away using water from the stream that runs through the murder scene seems dubious in the context of the murders being committed at night and that every single drop was erased. It would seem obvious that the murders were committed elsewhere and the bodies were dumped at Robin Hood Hills. But the police stubbornly cling to the theory as it ties in nicely with their notion of the location being used for Satanic rituals.
Paradise Lost, which features the music of Metallica, who let the filmmakers use it for free, ends with the trio being convicted despite no physical evidence, no demonstrable motive, no connection with the victims, and an incompetent police investigation. In addition, the finger of suspicion begins to fall on John Mark Byers, but the closed minds of the Arkansas justice system refuse to see anything other than ritual human sacrifice.
When the film was released it caused an outcry and the formation of the Free The West Memphis Three (WM3) group drawn from all over the US. They kept the issue in the public eye and pressed for a retrial.
The directors of Paradise Lost, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, returned to Arkansas in December 1997 as Echols’ filed a Petition that his original attorneys were incompetent to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Due to the controversy surrounding Paradise Lost, many of the attorneys and victims’ families did not want to take part in the new documentary, Revelations: Paradise Lost 2, but one crucial person who did seem keen to involved was John Mark Byers.
WM3, who have a smart, intelligent public face in the shape of Kathy Bakken and Burk Sauls, introduced Brent Turvey, a criminal profiler to Jessie Misskelley’s attorney Dan Stidham. He looked at the trial evidence and with a combination of expertise and common sense was able to refute some of the prosecution claims and alert Stidham to previously overlooked evidence: possible bite marks on the victims’ bodies.
The bite marks, which the state dismisses as being the imprint of a belt buckle, do not match dental casts from Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin or Damien Echols. Suspiciously, John Mark Byers had his teeth surgically removed and replaced with dentures, giving various dates and reasons why this took place.
Guilty or not, Byers comes across as an increasingly deranged character, whose wife died in suspicious circumstances a couple of years after the child murders. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky make no secret of the fact that Byers was paid for his participation in the documentary, but his background and troubling behaviour should be causing alarm bells to ring in Arkansas justice departments.
Taken together, the two films present a riveting look at one of America’s possible travesties of justice. And although it’s dangerous to jump to conclusions based on the evidence presented in a documentary, which has been subjectively filtered by the filmmakers (for example, Echols’ own mental health problems were scarcely mentioned in the documentaries), Paradise Lost and its sequel ask enough questions to cast doubt on the veracity of the accusations. I urge everyone to watch these movies as soon as possible, as time is running out for Damien Echols who still has a death sentence hanging over his head.
Paradise Lost 3 is slated for theatrical release in 2006, and aims to tell the definitive Robin Hood Hills story. But until then, get yourself up to speed on this fascinating and disturbing tale of a modern day witch hunt with Paradise Lostand Revelations.
Paradise Lost & Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 (1996 & 2000)
Dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Stars: Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Miskelly, Jason Baldwin, John Mark Byers, Melissa Byers, Terry Hobbs