Monday, January 16, 2012

Law & Disorder

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskeller Jr., and Jason Baldwin in 1993
Misskeller, Echols and Baldwin in 2000 (above)
Echols, Misskeller and Baldwin in 2011 (below)

I'd hoped to spend this three-day weekend relaxing and catching up, but instead I got angry. And maybe that's what MLK would have wanted.

A friend mentioned that HBO [full disclosure: my current employer] was airing all three Paradise Lost documentaries, in conjunction with the premiere of # 3. I was only vaguely aware of them, and at first thought they illustrated three different topics on a theme. So I set the DVR.

What I discovered, glued to my chair for seven hours, was that instead it was like a hellish version of Michael Apted's ongoing Up series [left] -- following the same characters from different economic strata over decades. (The most recent PL showed at the New York Film Festival, got a DGA nomination and is nominated for the Documentary Oscar.)

In the case of Paradise Lost, it took three documentaries and a mind-blowing 18 years -- plus the involvement of celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and the Dixie Chicks -- to rectify the miscarriage of justice that wrongfully convicted three innocent Arkansas teenagers in the murders of 3 eight-year-old boys.

The trilogy contains enough twists and turns, villains and false theories
to rival last year's fiction series The Killing, and even the "victory" leaves a cloud over many of the participants (including, in some ways, the filmmakers, whose cameras affected the proceedings and who inevitably became part of the story -- see the New York Times review).

I realized why I had probably missed the first two installments, in 1996 and 2000: back then I was the parent of two small children, and probably blocked out anything involving crime-scene photos of grisly child murders.

But today as a parent of teenagers, I am horrified at the horrendous wrong done to the "West Memphis 3" pictured above, who were all 18 or under when falsely accused and convicted, when their only apparent crime was being "different."

We like to picture murder investigations like TV dramatizes: everything falling into place thanks to tireless shoe leather and savvy. (The much-parodied doink-doink music cue of Law & Order reinforces this lockstep dance.)

But the reality is probably closer to what's depicted in these documentaries: local cops pressured to find a culprit, with no real knowledge of evidence gathering, autopsy analysis, or forensic patterns.

A month into the fruitless search, the police cornered Jessie Misskeller, Jr., who had an I.Q. of 72, and badgered him for 12 hours. Only the last 45 minutes was taped, and even in that small portion, you can hear him being pushed to change his answers to fit the facts of the case. He implicated   -- or rather, corroborated the police's implication of -- his fellow teens, whose main crime seemed to be having long hair, wearing black and listening to heavy metal.

Damien Echols was additionally punished for changing his name to "Damien" and reading up on Wicca; he ended up with a death sentence, whereas the other two merely got life sentences without parole. Never mind that there was no evidence even placing them near the crime scene or capable of the physical acts required to do what transpired. The community, pent up for revenge, descended on them, especially the parents of the dead children.

As I learned from a recent radio interview, even the filmmakers thought they were guilty when they first showed up to make the movie.

In the second installment, seven years later, the story is dominated by a "Save the West Memphis 3" group inspired by the first film. And -- like in the Up series -- several participants from the first film think better this time and refuse to participate, including all but one of the parents of the murdered second graders.

But that one is a doozy. John Mark Byers -- whose wife died under "indetermined circumstances" in the interim -- gives the filmmakers a knife as a gift that turns out to have blood on it; claims to have a brain tumor; goes to his wife's grave and returns to the scene of the crime, staging an insane pyromaniac ceremony consigning the teenagers to hell. He ends up taking a lie detector test and when he learns he passed it, he declares, somewhat self-defeatingly, "I knew I was innocent!" and high-fives the tester.

Yet by the current installment, Byers -- along with the filmmakers, it's implied -- is convinced the criminal is one of the other parents, Terry Hobbs, who sued Dixie Chick Natalie Maines for defamation and instead ended up casting more aspersions on himself.

But the filmmakers -- and the new lawyers for the defendants -- aren't out to solve the crime any more, they're out to salvage the lives of the teenagers who have now spent half their lives behind bars. They uncover new evidence, new expertise on the old evidence, including DNA that exonerates all three from being anywhere near the crime scene.

SPOILER ALERT. 
[Though it won't spoil your appreciation of the movies, and it's been in all the newspapers].

With the new movie about to come out, a new trial pending that would even more clearly embarrass the Arkansas police, prosecutors, and judges, as well as cost millions and open them up to civil lawsuits, a deal was offered: In exchange for time served, the three were allowed to plead guilty while stating their innocence for the record. This is known as an "Alford Plea," which was established in a previous case.

Baldwin, to his credit, did not want to play along: he wanted a new trial to prove their innocence once and for all. But he realized that he might be jeopardizing the life of Echols, so he relented.

And in the end -- after 18 years and FOUR movies (see below) -- the boys who were imprisoned on a false, forced confession, walked free only because of another false, forced confession.

[***UPDATED: another documentary about the same case (?!) produced by Peter Jackson, West of Memphis -- which also gives Echols a producer credit -- will premiere at Sundance this month. Click here for the trailer. It turns out Jackson paid a lot of the bills to uncover the new evidence. And has new witnesses who corroborate what Paradise Lost 3 implies about who actually did the crime.*** UPDATE #2: Now a planned feature docudrama has cast Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. Where were all these people when the happy ending wasn't written yet? There's also an undercurrent of competition between the two doc groups now, with Baldwin appearing to promote PL3 while Echols is tied to West of Memphis; Johnny Depp has also optioned Echols' book before it's even published. The race is on.]

One can only wonder how many prisoners in America without the benefit of cameras, HBO, et. al., languish under similar infuriating circumstances. For a nation obsessed with Casey Anthony going free, this is a much worse crime against humanity. And, lest we forget, the killer(s) of the 3 boys still roam free.

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