A few weeks ago my brother and I were watching this disturbing HBO documentary (view it here) called PARADISE LOST: The Child Murders of Robin Hill directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Paradise Lost chronicles the 1992/3 trial (if you can call it that) of the infamous West Memphis Three – three teenagers who were inexplicably convicted of raping, castrating and murdering three 8-year old boys in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas known as Robin Hill. It was some hardcore shit; the crime scene video alone is forever burned into my retinas… and it wasn’t even any up close and personal shots. The way it was shot appeared as if the police videographer, who no doubt had NEVER expected to see this kind of mutilation, couldn’t get closer lest his vomit up his KFC and donuts!
PARADISE LOST just made me mad, because the West Memphis Three (as the teen suspects were eventually called) defense attorneys didn’t seem to know how to slip out of the the noose that was closing in around their client’s necks. The first kid — Jessie Misskelley — who was tried first solo — got convicted, because he was basically a true idiot, in that his IQ was like 72! 72! Can you believe that? And the West Memphis police “interviewed” this kid for over three hours BEFORE they turned on the tape recorder and exacted a questionable signed confession from him (more on this later when I get to the CENTRAL PARK 5).
The two other kids – Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin – were tried together, and the main evidence against them was completely circumstantial – no physical evidence, no eyewitnesses, no motive; aside from the fact that Damien and Jason had a scant interest in Goth culture and the favorite bete noir mystic/occult figure Aleister Crawley. Hard to be this intangible evidence was the KEY piece of evidence that was used to convict these kids – who were forced to swallow life sentences (’cause three redneck boys were not just dead, but cut down when hope was still abundant); all this so-called evidence only hinted at the possibility of a Satanic ritual (as erroneously injected into the mind of the jury by fear-mongering DAs). Ironically, again, absolutely NO evidence of an actual occult ritual was introduced at trial.
And what’s super-duper crazy is that Jessie’s confession and damning, yet coerced written testimony wasn’t even used in the Echols and Baldwin trial. So you have convictions based upon fear. Fear! Can you fucking believe that!?!?
When you watch PARADISE LOST and see the forensic evidence (or lack thereof) and hear/see how the God-fearing, overall ignorant town was cowed by hints of a Satanic ritual (Memphis is in the heart of the Bible Belt, where illogical behavior based on Christianity rules the roost), you’ll be scratching your head at how ineffectual our legal system can be — if you don’t have any money.
So the other night, we saw WEST OF MEMPHIS (directed by Amy Berg) a follow-up documentary of sorts that was financed by Peter Jackson and his wife (yes, that Peter Jackson… he has money to burn, doesn’t he?) to help bring justice to a situation that was bleak and wholly unfair; Jackson also secretly donated huge chunks of money for the legal defense. WEST OF MEMPHIS, of which Berg paired down 800 hours of footage to an engrossing 2.5 hours, tears the lid of the case and shows how there was conflicting and perhaps exonerating evidence that wasn’t properly presented at the first trial (at least that’s how the two documentaries portrayed it; there is a 3rd doc – PARADISE LOST 2 – which I haven’t seen, and that probably adds more to the stew).
WEST OF MEMPHIS flashes us forward to 2012 and the Echols-led legal team has fought hard for twenty years to get the convictions overturned, because of potentially exculpatory evidence, and a new suspect (one of the dead kids’ stepfather is practically painted with a “guilty son of a bitch” sign) and you see how over the last 20 years the West Memphis 3 attracted the attention and financial & awareness support of the likes of Eddie Veddor and Johnny Depp.
However, what’s really nastily apparent throughout the documentary is how the players in the legal system in Arkansas didn’t want to stand for justice, but to stand by their original rulings and actions. For instance, the DA rejected any attempts to change his mind when exculpatory evidence was shown to him; so when he ran for election for a higher post, there was a concerted effort to block his ignorant ass (he lost that election). The presiding judge refused to re-examine the case, too, so he blocked a lot of opportunities to overturn HIS previous judgment and sentencing.
Echols et al had to wait until the judge was elected to a higher office, before they could present a case to the Arkansas supreme court to get them to alter the state criminal statutes/rules of using DNA evidence to retroactively reverse criminal convictions. Some fuck shit, if you ask me. And when the Attorney General of Arkansas does hear the new evidence, and decides to make a deal that will get the kids — who have wrongly spent 20 years in jail (Echols spent those years on death row basically in solitary) — the AG demanded an Alford Plea; which is some legal technicality that allows you to plead guilty, but then have the sentencing thrown out (I don’t pretend to know all the legalese about it, but THE GOOD WIFE used this one time in season 2 and thought it was a joke).
The key thing about the Alford Plea, from the point of view of the state, is that if and when it’s accepted by the defendants, it precludes them from suing the state for wrongful imprisonment. Thus the West Memphis Three can’t shake down the state of Arkansas for millions and millions and millions of dollars.
The truth behind the murders may not ever be known, but Damien, Jason and Baldwin got railroaded by a miscarriages of justice in the post-Civil Rights era (I mean, it was a Southern court and Blacks get sent up the river more times than anyone can count prior to the late 60s, and even to this day).
KCRW cinefile Elvis Mitchell hosted a live Q&A with Damien Echols and Lori Davis (the woman who fell in love with Echols while he was on death row, led the charged to get the convictions overturned and eventually became his wife), and Echols pointed out something that is so damningly poignant — the DAs and AGs and all the other ELECTED legal system officials, and just like every other politician, in that their main objective is to get re-elected. So they have a vested interest NOT to see wrongful convictions overturned — because it not only says that they’re incompetent at their job, but to screams to the public that a rapist or murderer is still out on the streets walking amongst you.
We are erroneously led to believe, by TV and the movies, that the officers of the court are out for justice — they’re not, they’re out to keep their jobs. And they’ll overlook evidence that doesn’t fit their theory about a crime, or conjure evidence to fit their theory… which is exactly what happened to the five Black & Latino kids who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white investment banker, known as the Central Park Jogger.
Ken Burns’ daughter weaves a chilling and despicable tale in CENTRAL PARK 5 (see it here for free on PBS.org); without going into the same detail (now), what you see in the Central Park jogger case is that the police held these five kids and kept them up for close to 30 hours — without access to an attorney — and the coerced them into signing confessions; all that completely conflicted with each other and the physical evidence of the case. Even when the DNA tests CLEARED the kids, the two female NYC DAs who were trying the case, refused to have their theory debunked.
Watch this film, ‘cause I’ll have more to say about this in a week or two, as the impact on the media landscape regarding young Black men and the harsh way in which NYC is policed today (e.g. the minority-targeted stop-n-frisk) is a result of the public outcry that rang out in during the trial of the Central Park 5.
Documentaries as essentially political pieces are designed (at their best) to entertain, but also to educate and to foster change of some sort in the world. Crimes against humanity – large or small – only get changed when the public is aware and cares about miscarriages of justice.