Over 18 years ago, three teenagers -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley -- were put on trial for the brutal murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.
As the case picked up international media attention, speculation in the town reached near hysteria -- these teens were "devil-worshippers," many proclaimed, since Echols had jet-black hair and drew scary pictures in journals -- and suddenly the case became about much more than the murder. How could a jury ignore everything they were hearing in the news? Was it even possible for a judge and jury to maintain neutrality?
The three boys were convicted, and Echols was sentenced to death.
But two documentary filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were on hand to watch the case unfold, and their 1996 documentary, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," re-examined the evidence and further questioned members of the police department.
After that film aired on HBO, thousands around the world became convinced that these three teenagers were innocent; "Free The West Memphis 3" organizations were formed in their name and celebrities like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder spoke up in the press. Another documentary directed by Berlinger and Sinofsky, "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," was released in 2000, which raised new evidence against one of the murdered boys' parents.
Now, Berlinger and Sinofsky have a third film -- "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" -- which chronicles the continued efforts to release the West Memphis 3 from prison, focusing especially on a 2007 "DNA press conference," where forensics efforts and post-conviction lawyers concluded that none of the three convicted killers could be attached to the 1993 murder scene.
The film also introduces a new suspect -- Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the children -- who may have lied about his whereabouts the night that the children were killed.
At the New York Film Festival's screening of "Paradise Lost 3" on Tuesday, Berlinger and Sinofsky put their bittersweet stamp on a milestone series in documentary film. They also noted what a rarity it was for two filmmakers to be granted the opportunity to produce a trilogy of films without robots, hobbits or superhero spandex; rarer still when those films actually have a tangible impact on society, and enter into the national dialogue on a major court case.
"The opportunity to go back to your own work," Berlinger said at a press conference, "was hugely fascinating. How often do you get a chance to revisit your own material using your own archival footage?"
The film premiered in unfinished form at the Toronto Film Festival earlier in September, because the filmmakers hadn't had a chance to incorporate its real-life ending, which weeks prior had taken the filmmakers, as well as the nation, by surprise.
On August 19 of this year, after a hearing with a new judge was announced in Arkansas, the West Memphis 3 pled guilty -- in accordance with an "Alford plea" deal -- to crimes they say they didn't commit, in order to save Echols' life and be released from prison. The deal allowed the three to maintain their innocence, while still being considered convicted felons by the state.
This deal was frustrating for Baldwin especially and he initially turned it down. Toward the end of the film, Baldwin delivers a moving monologue about the flaws in our justice system, and how he essentially had to lie to save his friend's life.
There's something wrong, Baldwin says in the film, about claiming to be guilty to be considered innocent.
Berlinger suggested that the August hearing might have been rushed because the Arkansas Supreme Court wanted to wrap up the case before the third "Paradise Lost" film was released this November. If people saw their film first, Berlinger said, it wouldn't have looked very good for the state, and they might have had a civil suit on their hands.
He also wondered how many other convicted felons are in the same position as the West Memphis 3.
"Why does it take three well-funded documentaries and millions of dollars from Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp," Berlinger asked, "to give these guys the fair trial they deserved 15 years ago?"
Though it would be fascinating to follow the free men as they acclimate to life outside of prison, Berlinger and Sinofsky insinuated that this would likely be their last film in the series. After 18 years, Sinofsky said, "maybe it’s time to turn the cameras off and let them live their lives."
But it's difficult to know if these filmmakers, who have spent almost two decades entrenched in this case, will ever be able to put this story to bed. Especially when the real killer may still be out there in the world.
HBO plans to televise the film early next year.
UPDATE: The New York Times reports and HBO confirms that the West Memphis 3 will make their first public appearance at the New York Film Festival screening of the film on Monday evening.
In a statement, Berlinger said: "What a remarkable opportunity to celebrate the power of cinema by having the subjects of these films -- one of whom just six weeks ago was on death row and the others locked away for the rest of their lives -- on hand to meet the audience who will witness their 18-year wrongful conviction odyssey on what is sure to be a monumental occasion for everyone involved."
WATCH a clip from the film below:
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the filmmakers headed to West Memphis after the original verdict was announced, when in fact they were following the case in real time.
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