Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 1996)

The title track of Metallica’s …And Justice for All album serves to highlight a lot of what goes on in Paradise Lost. The track, written by James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett, notes:

The Ultimate in Vanity Exploiting Their Supremacy I Can't Believe the Things You Say I Can't Believe I Can't Believe the Price You Pay Nothing Can Save You

What Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky successfully convey in their documentary is a sense of injustice within the legal system. This sense of injustice serves to illustrate how a media circus can help shape and warp the minds of those watching, as well as excuse facts in favor of visceral emotions. Perhaps most telling is how Paradise Lost paints a picture of a town that demonizes the other– those in positions of power are capable of exercising their hegemonic dominance over those without.

On May 5th, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were tortured and killed in West Memphis, Arkansas. The nature of the crime is particularly gruesome – the boys were raped, with their genitals removed in what was construed as a sort of satanic ritual. After a month long investigation, three young men were charged – Damien Echols (age 18), Jessie Misskelly (age 17) and Jason Baldwin (age 16). Media reports dictated that Echols had drank the children’s blood (as a sort of haphazard reason for why there was no blood found at the crime scene) along with reporters noting that genitals were found in a glass jar in Echols’ room. There was no factual basis behind any of these claims.

Yet the parents of the deceased and the community of West Memphis consumed such media reports without question.

This is the preliminary idea that Berlinger and Sinofsky present in Paradise Lost, wherein we understand how media attention can shape the minds of the involved and the vicarious. But as the film becomes more involved in the trial itself, we begin to understand how images of adolescent divergence can work against you. The case made against Damien Echols was simple – he’s different. He wears black, listens to Metallica, and checked out some books on Wiccan culture from the library. These arbitrary details served as pieces of evidence against Echols. He would be sentenced to death by lethal injection. Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin, whose crime was largely based on their association with Echols, were given life sentences.

Evidence against the three was scant. Jessie Misskelly, with an IQ of 72, was forced to sit through a 10-hour interrogation, wherein only the final minutes of the interrogation were recorded. His confession is dubious at best – the details of the crime span throughout a day, with leading questions constructing his story. The nature of the crime exceeds the knowledge of the three suspects as well – the precision and professionalism with which the crime was conducted is simply out of the hands of teenagers. But scapegoats needed to be found. What better way to remove the socially deviant from the world than to charge them with such a crime? It’s a depressing thought, but it’s one that becomes a reality when watching Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost operates as both a scathing critique on a flawed system as well as a piece of compelling cinema. The all-encompassing worldview in which Berlinger and Sinofsky view the case is amazing – we see the trial, lawyers talking amongst each other, reporters dictating the news, and parents grieving. Yet even with that, there feels like necessary details are missing throughout the film’s two and a half hour runtime – what are their alibis? Under what circumstances did Misskelly give his confession in the first place? Such details seem intentionally omitted, giving me the impression that the filmmakers are attempting to steer you in a particular direction.

Given the linearity of the film, the cinematic qualities of Paradise Lost lend more to fiction than reality –the twists and turns that the trial takes are so incredibly difficult to accept. This is obviously due to my own understanding of the case, along with how the filmmakers portrayed the three accused. I’m able to sympathize for their case not so much out of their individual characters, but rather, out of how the case was mishandled. Evidence against the accused is nonexistent. Professionals were portrayed by the media as invaders and subsequently demonized. Anything resembling sound logic seemed to work against the Echols. Nothing about the case presented against him, Misskelly, or Baldwin was convincing in the slightest. Doubt lingers in every which way one looks at the case. The chorus of Metallica’s …And Justice for All sums it all:

Justice Is Lost Justice Is Raped Justice Is Gone

Rating: 8/10