HBO has long said it’s more than TV.
Monday (Oct. 10) the living proof of that ad, the West Memphis 3, took the stage at the cable station’s New York City headquarters. The three men — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — attended the premiere of the third documentary, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” chronicling the 1993 case.
“This is a little frightening,” Echols says. “This case has already eaten up 20 years of our lives.”
“I don’t want it to be just forgotten,” he says. “This happens all the time.”
Were it not for HBO’s dogged persistence in chronicling the railroading of the three then teenagers their story would have long been forgotten. The three spent 18 years in prison for murders they always maintained they did not commit. Echols was on death row.
This documentary, the third filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made on the topic, is dedicated to the victims. Stephen Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were 8-year-old Cub Scouts, who were savagely murdered, raped and mutilated and left in Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Ark., on May 5, 1993.
The suspects were freed in August under a little known, and less-understood legal maneuver, the Alford Plea, allowing them to maintain their innocence but saying they were guilty. This confusing agreement was not anyone’s idea of justice, but the boys who walked into the prison left as free men.
“It’s a compromise and basically an offer we couldn’t refuse,” Dan Stidham, Misskelley’s pro bono lawyer from the beginning, says after the screening.
Had the three continued to appeal, there was always the risk they could have lost as they had in the past, despite that no physical evidence linked them. Misskelley, who has the intellectual development of a child, had initially maintained his innocence. During the endless interrogation, he finally told police what he thought they wanted to hear.
The other two never waivered in maintaining their innocence.
The first film, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996) shows how savage these murders were, including footage of the slain boys’ small naked bodies. Within a month, the arrests are made. The suspects had a proclivity toward heavy metal music and wearing black, though how those tendencies made them the sole suspects for the brutal rapes and murders of children is never clear.
In the second film, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000) John Byers, stepfather of one of the murdered boys, is so wracked with anger and revenge that he appears to be a suspect. When he sets fire to the grass of where the bodies were found and stomps on what he proclaims are the West Memphis 3’s graves, it’s hard to not consider him at least unhinged.
The third film redeems Byers, but he and many others question Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Stephen Branch. Hobbs has no alibi for where he was during the murders, and a hair that matches his DNA was found on the ligature used to hogtie the boys.
“I find it really difficult to point the finger of guilt at anyone after what we have been through,” Baldwin says.
There could well be a fourth installment, which Sheila Nevins, head of HBO’s documentary department, did not rule out.
“If the story needs to be told, we will tell it,” she says.
The lawyers who worked for years to free them are not giving up.
For now, the three are adjusting to life on the outside.
Baldwin shows his learner’s permit, and plans to start taking driving lessons next week. He went to prison at 16. He’s working in construction. Echols, still wearing all black, is in New York City, where he can walk unnoticed.
“I am acclimating myself to being among people again,” Echols says. “I have been in solitary confinement for 10 years. I am writing again and trying to capture this while it’s still new. Every day is like a week. In some ways I feel like prison was years ago already.”
HBO plans to air the documentary in January.