Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Someone once said this about the United States' justice system: "If ten guilty men must go free to prevent one innocent man from falsely going to prison, so be it." This philosophy explains why, at least in theory, every accused criminal is presumed innocent until proven otherwise. At some point, however, our approach to justice in this country became warped. So, if the system is broken, is it possible to get a fair trial? This is a crucial question, and, if we accept the evidence presented in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost, the sobering answer may be "no", at least in certain high-profile cases.

Berlinger and Sinofsky, who made 1992's Brothers Keeper, have stated that they initially approached this project as an examination of America's disaffected youth. What they uncovered during the course of filming radically changed the movie's direction. Paradise Lost became a trial of the American justice system, and, to a lesser extent, a condemnation of the media's lack of objectivity. Other documentaries, such as The Thin Blue Line and Brothers Keeper, have followed similar paths, but none with the devastating impact of Paradise Lost.

On the night of May 5, 1993, three eight-year old boys, Steven Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore, were tortured and murdered in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas. The community, understandably outraged, cried out for blood. It took the police a month to make arrests. The eventual suspects were Jessie Misskelly, age 17; Damien Echols, age 18; and Jason Baldwin, age 16. Jessie, who has a 72 IQ and was subjected to a grueling 10-hour interrogation, confessed to his involvement in the killings, but later recanted the confession, claiming to have been coerced. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life plus 40 years. Likewise, Damien and Jason were found guilty. Damien was sentenced to die by lethal injection; Jason was to spend the rest of his life in jail without the possibility of parole.

Paradise Lost follows events surrounding the crime, from the discovery of the bodies (as shown in a graphic police crime scene video) to the verdicts. Berlinger and Sinofsky painstakingly chronicle ten months worth of developments, illustrating how easily justice can be swayed. There's no way that this movie can answer the question of the defendants' guilt or innocence, but one piece of information is clear from Paradise Lost: Jessie Misskelly, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin did not receive fair trials.

There was almost no physical evidence connecting the three to the crime. Jessie's confession was, at best, obtained under dubious circumstances. But the town of West Memphis needed scapegoats, people they could demonize. Because Damien was "different" by his own admission -- he wore black, listened to Metallica, and had shown interest in the Wicca religion -- he made an excellent target. Jessie and Jason were guilty by association. Suddenly, news reports were full of allegations of Satanic rituals and occult ceremonies, with intimations of human sacrifice and sexual perversity. Damien, Jessie, and Jason were tried in and convicted by the media. They didn't have a chance in court. Oddly, however, the three weren't fazed by their convictions. Their families exhibited far more distress than they did.

Berlinger and Sinofsky have obtained an amazingly in-depth and intimate picture of the situation. Their cameras were allowed in the courtrooms, behind closed-door strategy sessions, and in the prisons where the accused were being held. The friends and families of the victims and the defendants cooperated with the film makers, enabling them to get close to both sides. As a result, there are no faceless entities here -- all of the participants have personalities.

Dadetown, an earlier 1996 release, questioned the role of documentary film makers in examining their subjects, and this issue is raised in Paradise Lost when a knife given to Berlinger and Sinofsky by a victim's father is introduced as a piece of evidence. Suddenly, the documentarians were no longer detached observers, but participants. And, while it's unlikely that their "contribution" affected the outcome, it's impossible to say for certain. Ultimately, however, when you consider the nature of Paradise Lost's main concerns, this matter is of secondary importance.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which is due in theaters this fall, offers the Salem Witch trials as a parallel to McCarthyism. Paradise Lost shows that witch hunts didn't end centuries, or even decades, ago. Religious fanaticism fueled much of the hatred against Damien, Jessie, and Jason. The mere hint of Satanism doomed their cases, even if their only real crimes were listening to heavy metal music, wearing strange clothing, and holding unconventional beliefs. There's much about these three that we'll never know, but the scary thing is that the men and women of West Memphis don't care about those gaps. Truth has become far less important than closure. And it doesn't matter that, if these boys are innocent, the real killers are still free. Equally disturbing is the underlying hypocrisy typified by one scene: a victim's father leads his fundamentalist congregation in song, then is shown making vicious jokes as he uses a gun to blast holes in a pumpkin he alternately names Damien, Jessie, and Jason.

No documentary released in 1996 challenges an audience the way this one does. The questions it proposes are profound, and there are no answers. Paradise Lost is one of a very few films that completely absorbs the attention. Watching Berlinger and Sinofsky's movie is like witnessing an execution: it's horrifying, gut-wrenching, and impossible to turn away from. Anyone with an interest in law and order, the American justice system, or the role of the media in trials, should seek it out. Paradise Lost is the kind of film that will leave even the most devout defendants of the legal system either shaken or shaking their heads.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (United States, 1996)

Director: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Cast: Jessie Misskelly, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin
Screenplay: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Cinematography: Robert Richman
Music: Metallica
U.S. Distributor: Creative Thinking International
Ranked #7 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1996
Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1