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HBO Documentary Films’ Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the conclusion of the award-winning trilogy that spawned a world-wide movement to free three convicted men – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – known as The West Memphis 3, tells the complete story of one of the most notorious child murder cases in U.S. history.
Provocative and timely, the film chronicles stunning new developments, culminating in the startling and unexpected conclusion just a few months ago, when Echols, who was on death row, and Baldwin and Misskelley, who were serving life sentences without the possibility of parole, were finally freed from prison after more than 18 years.
“Almost 20 years and three films ago, HBO’s Sheila Nevins sent us on this journey to document the terrible murders of three innocent boys and the subsequent circus that followed the arrests and convictions of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley,” says filmmaker Joe Berlinger. “To see our work culminate in the righting of this tragic miscarriage of justice is more than a filmmaker could ask for.”
On May 5, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found next to a muddy creek in the wooded Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Ark. A month later, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were arrested and later convicted of brutally raping, mutilating and killing them.
Following trials fraught with innuendoes of satanic worship, emotionally charged statements and allegations of coerced confessions, the defendants were convicted, despite a lack of physical evidence linking them to the crime.
With the support of HBO, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have followed the story for almost two decades. Arriving on the scene just days after the arrests, the filmmakers assumed they were making a film about guilty teenagers, as the local media was reporting an open-and-shut case.
They embedded themselves in the community for seven months prior to the 1994 trials and came to question the guilt of The West Memphis 3. By the time the trials were over, Berlinger and Sinofsky were convinced they had witnessed a modern-day witch-hunt.
Their first film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), shocked audiences around the world with its portrayal of a rush to judgment, and was followed by Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), which revealed a flawed appeals process. The two films fueled a public and legal battle, raising awareness of the case and helping spark the worldwide movement Free The West Memphis 3, supported by celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.
Encouraged by the growing international support movement, HBO and the filmmakers began production on Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2004. Says director and producer Berlinger, “We tried to make the film a self-sufficient viewing experience, so that you don’t have to have seen the previous films to fully comprehend this complicated case.”
Adds co-director Sinofsky, “We re-tell the early days of the case with footage we have never used before, so fans of the first two films will be viewing past events with a fresh perspective.”
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory reveals recent DNA and other forensic evidence (unavailable at the time of the murders), as well as other troubling developments, including allegations of juror misconduct, that suggest the trio did not receive a fair trial. The film includes new interviews with Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, who are now in their 30s, and many of the subjects of the first two documentaries, including John Mark Byers and Terry Hobbs, stepfathers of two of the victims and frequent targets of the media (and each other).
Besides drawing on 150 hours of footage shot since 2004, the filmmakers pored over hundreds of hours of original video and 16 mm footage from the first two productions, discovering compelling full-length scenes with new relevance.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory also contains rarely seen news footage that is no longer available to the public, but had been meticulously archived by the filmmakers, as well as previously unseen photographs taken by Berlinger and director of photography Bob Richman over the course of 18 years.
The documentary ends with a stunning denouement, when Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley entered rarely used Alford pleas and were finally released from prison on Aug. 19, 2011, agreeing to plead guilty while asserting their innocence in order to secure their freedom, and most urgently, to get Echols off death row.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival in its original form, and was subsequently updated and lengthened by 12 minutes to include The West Memphis 3’s remarkable release.
On Oct. 10, 2011, the three men, together in public for the first time since they left the Arkansas courthouse, were greeted with a standing ovation and the thunderous applause of 1,200 filmgoers at the conclusion of the world premiere of the longer version at the New York Film Festival.