Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
A Film by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
New Video Group DVD
This follow-up to the HBO film Paradise Lost traces the events and people that have come to be known as the “West Memphis Three.” For those who didn’t see the original film, the story concerns the murders of three young children — Christopher Byers, Steve Branch, and Michael Moore — in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in an area known as “Robin Hood Hills.” The boys’ bodies were found in a creek bed, all subject to obvious and horrible trauma (Byers was castrated), although it did not appear that the murders occurred where the bodies where found.
At this point — a search for missing children that turns into a murder investigation — any police force in the country would step back and make certain that all the correct steps were followed. However, the police of West Memphis, having never had murders of this type to investigate, begin a process that appears, in hindsight, to be half-hearted and flawed at best, and criminally negligent at worse. The crime scene was trampled by police, polluted by the investigators themselves, and almost immediately, the question of “who” is asked and answered. In this small, southern town, closely knit by religious convictions, the finger of suspicion falls on a local teenager, Damien Echols. Notable for his manner of dress and personal style (black clothing and a fondness for Metallica) that would go virtually unnoticed in any large city, Echols is fingered by a juvenile probation officer as a likely suspect, and in due time, Echols, along with Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin, is arrested and sent to trial, largely on a confession gathered — some say coerced — from Misskelly. Jessie’s IQ of only 72, along with the rather shoddy manner in which his interrogation was handled and recorded, does lead one to believe that the boy was browbeaten into saying what the police wanted to hear, just to end the pressure. The young men were tried and found guilty, with Echols being sentenced to death.
All of this was the basis of the first film, Paradise Lost. The film brought the case to worldwide attention, much in the same way as The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris did years before. A Web site was formed to disseminate information on the case, a benefit record was released, and more and more people took the cause to heart. The filmmakers continued to record the events in West Memphis, and this forms the heart of Revelations. The attempts by Echols to get a new trial, new evidence concerning bite marks, and the totally strange behavior of Mark Byers, the father of victim Christopher, are shown. (It should be noted that Mark Byers adopted Christopher — his natural father feels the men in jail are innocent, and that the real killer is still at large). Byers’ behavior during and after the making of the original film is bizarre, to say the least — not to mention the fact that his wife died of “undetermined” causes a few years after the death of her son. It’s rather hard not to cast a suspicious eye upon a man who has his teeth removed and replaced by dentures (after the murders) for reasons even he can’t keep straight. Surely it has nothing to do with the reliability of bite mark evidence in a crime.
Any work of art — be it fiction, documentary or ballet, for that matter — is propaganda. It is impossible to observe and relate an account of an occurrence without showing personal bias. This is simply human nature. It is evident that the filmmakers are convinced — and most likely completely correctly — of the innocence of the West Memphis 3. They are also seemingly as sure of the guilt of Mark Byers. The movie is arranged in such a way that Byers comes off as a crocodile tear shedding, scenery chewing buffoon. The shots of him at his family’s gravesites would be almost laughable if not for the fact that he might possibly be responsible for the graves being there at all. Byers was arrested for selling drugs to a narcotics officer and jailed in 1999. Probably for the best.
Echols, who comes off in the original movie as a sullen, goth-ish teen, has matured in prison, and is presented here as a well-spoken, intelligent man, which he most likely is. Still, this is the image the filmmakers want you to see, and the contrast between his mannered, rational speech and the ramblings of Byers is sharply drawn. Don’t take from this that I feel the movie is not accurate or should be held suspect, only that watching it requires the viewer to step back and not rush to judgment about the issues presented — something one wishes the police and people of West Memphis had avoided.
Above and beyond the particulars of this horrible crime are certain facts. One, the majority of murder investigations are handled in a competent, honest manner, the correct people go to jail and justice is generally served. Secondly, the abduction and murder of children is so rare as to be almost singular. Murders of this type by someone other than a family member or close family friend are rarer still. Much was made of Echols’ supposed “devil worship” and that the murders were part of some satanic ritual. Again, actual occurrences of such “cult” activity are so rare as to be almost non-existent. More often noted are outbreaks of “Satanic panic,” where any odd behavior that occurs in a largely religious town is ascribed as being cult-driven. This is most likely what occurred in the small town of West Memphis, as it did in Salem during the witch trials. History has shown a possible cause for the behavior of the people (and animals) seemingly “possessed” by demons and hung for being witches in that famous case — a form of LSD occurring in plant mold may have been ingested in bread, causing hallucinations. In America today, no such contamination is necessary — the media provides enough material for a lifetime of scary visions, and a traumatized community perhaps shouldn’t be condemned for attempting to blame what they consider “outsiders” for a crime such as this, instead of having to consider the fact that a child’s father could be involved, no matter how loony he appears.
In the end, no matter if you side with the WM3 or the people of West Memphis who are still convinced of the guilt of those convicted, this film is a vital document. All particulars of this case aside, when our legal system fails — and no matter if Echols and the others did it or not, the system failed horribly in this case — it is every citizen’s duty to bring it to light and attempt to see justice done. Most likely the police in this case very early on felt overwhelmed, and a mixture of pride and inexperience kept them from asking for help. It’s this same pride that drives them today, and keeps possibly innocent men locked away while a butcher (or butchers) of children walk the streets, convinced they have outsmarted the law. Which, sadly, in this case, they might have.