In 1994, three teenagers were convicted of murdering three young boys as part of a satanic ritual in West Memphis, Arkansas. Despite their claims of innocence, Jessie Misskelly, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were sentenced to life in prison while Damien Echols, the eldest and supposed leader of the group, was sentenced to death. In 1996, HBO ran a documentary called Paradise Lost in which filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made a case for the innocence of the West Memphis 3, as they have now come to be called, and calling attention to their case. Numerous people, including celebrities such as Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, became involved in the case and began raising money and awareness for their cause, prompting a second film from Berlinger and Sinofsky in 2000. It was enough to stay Echols execution and keep hope alive for freeing these men. Finally, in 2007, new forensic evidence came to light that eventually led to a complicated plead out by the West Memphis 3, leading to their freedom. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory gives a firsthand look at the events leading to the release of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly and simultaneously points a finger at the father of one of the murdered boys.
Though I have been somewhat aware of the West Memphis 3 for some time, prior to the release of Purgatory I had never really dug into the story and I’ve never seen the first two Paradise Lost films. As such, I cannot speak to the merits of either of those installments. But as for this film in and of itself, I felt that Beringer and Sinofsky did an absolutely brilliant job of both filling in the blanks for viewers, like myself, who had been ignorant to this story, and advancing the storyline at the same time. The filmmakers paint a vivid portrait of life now and then for Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly and pull no punches in their attempts to show just how weak the district attorney’s case against these men truly was. Having spent five years of my life living just around the corner from West Memphis, I can tell you that it is not the most progressive, tolerant area the country has to offer and that unquestionably played an important part in the conviction of the West Memphis 3 who were, by their own admission, very different from everyone around them. A fascination with heavy metal and some dabbling in graffiti were misconstrued and misrepresented as involvement in the Occult, which was a key factor in their convictions. Judge David Burnett is cast in an unfavorable light, along with the public defenders appointed to the convicted.
At the same time, however, Purgatory treads lightly on the motives of the investigators themselves. The pressure to find the people responsible for the three murders was extreme and Detective Gitchell and his team were perhaps not up to the task. But at no point does Purgatory attempt to make Gitchell out to be a simpleton nor does it make the case that the West Memphis 3 were the victims of witch hunt mentality. It is this relatively simple stroke of grace that allows Purgatory to play as a levelheaded, balanced documentary rather than turning into a fiery assault on the police, the lawyers, and the culture of West Memphis itself. This approach lends far more weight to its core argument than what one would typically come to expect from a documentary of this nature. Instead of wasting time blasting those involved with the investigation and prosecution, Beringer and Sinofsky pour everything into documenting the rise of support for the West Memphis 3 and the case their final team of lawyers put together which ultimately led to their release. This is truly a fascinating, even keel documentary filled to the brim with worthwhile information, culminating in a powerful and sobering conclusion that, in its own way, demonstrates the value of films like this.