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Letter From New Orleans

Q&A: Paradise Lost directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

An interview about the 18-year fight to free the West Memphis Three

In 1993, after the brutal killing of three 8-year-old boys, police in West Memphis, Arkansas, arrested three local teens — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — whom they declared to be Satan worshippers for their taste in black clothing and heavy metal music. Despite the lack of concrete evidence, the teenagers, who came to be known as the “West Memphis Three,” were convicted of murder; Echols, the alleged ringleader, was put on death row, while Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed the case and its initial trial in the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which questioned the guilt of the West Memphis Three. The film, along with its 2000 sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, brought Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley a wide range of supporters, from grassroots legal activists to celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson, and many others. In August 2011, after 18 years in prison, the West Memphis Three finally walked free.

Berlinger and Sinofsky have spent the intervening years directing a slew of other critically acclaimed documentaries, including Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Crude. Thursday night, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which documents the West Memphis Three’s continued legal battle and ultimate march to freedom, premiered on HBO. Davy Rothbart spoke with Berlinger and Sinofsky about the Paradise Lost trilogy.


Where were you when you heard that the West Memphis Three might be released?

Joe Berlinger: We were just putting the finishing touches on the new Paradise Lost film, working on the final sound mix, when we got a call from people involved in the case saying, “You better get down here, something big is happening.” And we’re like, “You’ve got to give us more info, because we’re just about to finish the film.” For legal reasons, they couldn’t really tell us the details, but they just said, “Look, this is as big as it gets.” So we hopped on a plane. There was a whole range of emotions, from utter delight that this was finally happening to some very selfish concerns, like, “Oh my god, we’ve just finished a film called Purgatory, and they’re getting out of prison. We’ve got to change our title!”

As it turned out, later that week the State of Arkansas released the West Memphis Three under a complicated and unusual plea arrangement, in which they agreed to accept murder convictions while still maintaining their innocence. What did you make of this?

Berlinger: We assumed that they would be walking out of prison, fully exonerated. As it turned out, we didn’t have to change the title, because the guys were forced into this incredibly disturbing Alford plea. They’re free, but they walked out unjustly marked as convicted killers, with a criminal record which follows them around for the rest of their lives, until we can get them fully exonerated. It means that the real killers aren’t being looked for. It means the State of Arkansas gets away without being held accountable for everything that’s gone down the last 18 years. Purgatory is actually the perfect title because a lot of people in this case are still in limbo due to the end result.

I don’t mean to understate our joy at their release. But there are also intense feelings of indignation that the State of Arkansas could be so cowardly. To me, it’s a completely transparent attempt to avoid responsibility and being sued for wrongful conviction. Shame on the State of Arkansas if they really still believe that these three are guilty and they let them out anyway. And if that’s not their belief, shame on them for making these guys — in order to end their 18-year nightmare of incarceration — plead to something that they didn’t do.

Can you describe how it felt these past 18 years to have three guys you’d grown so close to locked up for a crime you were certain they hadn’t committed?

Berlinger: I was 31 and at the beginning of my career when we started filming these guys. I’m 50 now. I have literally marked my professional and personal life by comparing what’s going on in my life with what’s going in their lives. I had my first kid during the making of the first film, I had my second kid during the making of the second film, and now my first daughter is almost 18, about to go to college. She was born while we were shooting that first trial. I’ve had a very full and rich life, but not a week has gone by where I didn’t think, “My God, these guys are just rotting in prison.”

Bruce Sinofsky: There’s one image from the end of the first film that haunted me for a long time: When we were leaving, and Damien was waving us good-bye. It was devastating. We made a commitment after the first film was finished that we would be there until the day they were released, whether that meant making other films or just finding ways to be active in their defense.

Berlinger: I thought the first Paradise Lost film was going to blow the doors off this case, the same way that [the Errol Morris documentary] The Thin Blue Line got Randall Dale Adams exonerated, and was shocked that it didn’t. It was a strange experience, because on one hand, the first film brought us everything filmmakers could dream of — a Sundance premiere, an HBO broadcast, great reviews, critics’ year-end top-10 lists, Emmy Awards, Peabodys. Over the years, people have said to me, “Hey, I became a filmmaker because of that film,” or “I became a lawyer because of that film.” From a creative standpoint, it felt great. But in a way, I also felt guilty. I thought, Wait a minute. Bruce and I are being celebrated here and yet the people who this is about are suffering. I felt like the movie was a failure because these guys were still stuck in prison. Any pleasure we took from its success had this inverse sadness. We just made a pledge that we would continue to make films until these guys got out.

The night they were freed, you guys celebrated with a rooftop party at the Madison Hotel in Memphis. What was that scene like?

Sinofsky: It was surreal to come out on that roof and see Damien talking to people, having a drink of wine. Jason came out later, looking a bit shell-shocked by the whole thing. Just to hug and kiss them and talk to them out in the open air was magical. Jessie didn’t come — he’d gone back to a barbecue at his father’s house in Marion, Arkansas. But Eddie Vedder was there, and Natalie Maines [of The Dixie Chicks], as well as much of the defense team, Jason’s mother, Damien’s wife, and a lot of friends who’d stuck by them. All these people had been involved for 18 years, one way or another, but none of us had been together unless we were in a meeting or a courtroom. It was a thrilling celebration. I felt stung about the Alford pleas, but still, there was an unimaginable relief that they were free, breathing the same air that we were.

Early the next morning we got up early to do the Today Show, and on the street we ran into Jason, who was out looking for a bathing suit because he wanted to swim, which he hadn’t done in 18 years. Just the fact that he could walk outside without a guard and let the doors shut behind him was tremendous. So we went with him to Walgreens and found him a suit. All the newspaper boxes along the way were filled with these joyous headlines: “3 WALK FREE.” We invited him for breakfast — unencumbered, no walls between us — and he said grace. Here’s this beautiful guy, not bitter in the least. I was humbled, because I’m not sure I could spend 18 years in jail for a crime I didn’t commit and not be miserable and angry, but here he was — out on the patio, having waffles and eggs — with a smile. After breakfast, we went out and did a little bit of filming with him, and that conversation is at the end of our film.

When you guys began documenting the case, what made you believe that the West Memphis Three were innocent?

Berlinger: The great irony of this journey — three films over two decades — is that we originally went down to Arkansas to make a film about what we thought were three guilty teenagers. We thought the movie was: How could kids be so rotten that they could do such a horrible thing? All of the local press reports were so one-sided that it seemed to us like an open-and-shut case. Our first couple of months in town, we primarily spent time with the victims’ families, the prosecution, and the police, and we had no reason to doubt the guilt of the accused.

Sinofsky: Things changed when we finally had an opportunity to meet Damien, Jason, and Jessie’s families. We started hearing things that didn’t align with what we’d been told so far. Then when we met with Damien, Jason, and Jessie in jail, they were very, very different than how they had been described to us by the media and by the victims’ families. Joe and I would talk at night and say, “What do you think about Jason? What do you think about Damien?”

Berlinger: From those first interviews with them, it just didn’t add up. Jason Baldwin was shy but very intelligent, very credible, very believable in his protestations of his innocence. He’s also a very slight guy with tiny little arms and small wrists, and the theory of him killing these young boys with a giant butcher knife seemed impossible to imagine. Echols was a little harder to read because some part of him was reveling in the attention — I don’t think he ever thought he would actually be convicted. He was kind of an alienated, bored teenager who at some level was enjoying being in the spotlight of a terrible situation. But although he was a little harder to read, he, too, was very credible. We left those interviews thinking, Something just doesn’t seem right.

Sinofsky: Then we got to know the defense attorneys, and got more involved with the evidence. The more info we gathered, the more it indicated that maybe these guys didn’t do it. That’s when we started having serious doubts.

Berlinger: The one thing that was really a turning point, besides talking with those guys for the first time, was the fact that there was no blood at the crime scene. The prosecution will tell you the police found a little bit of blood with [specialized] testing, but that’s never been established. Generally speaking, if teen killers with knives are going to take three 8-year-olds into the woods and slaughter them at dusk, you would expect to find lots of blood and tissue. None of that was found. I always felt that this was a dump site and not a murder site. The prosecution’s version of events never struck me as plausible.

After a relatively brief trial, all three were found guilty of murder. How do you explain such an apparent miscarriage of justice?

Berlinger: Wrongful convictions happen all the time. The big cautionary tale within the Paradise Lost series is that our justice system is run by human beings who are extremely fallible, who seem to want to protect their own interests rather than acknowledge their mistakes. The Innocence Project, using advanced DNA technology, has helped to exonerate hundreds of people in the last six or seven years, and you have to believe that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We have a justice system that sometimes is about who has the best resources to tell the story they want to tell as opposed to a sacrosanct search for the truth.

Sinofsky: You have to remember what the environment was like down there. Three little kids had been brutally murdered, and there was a huge amount of pressure on the police to nail whoever had done it. People thought Damien was kind of an odd bird because he wore a trench coat during the summer and things like that, but of course that doesn’t make you a killer. I wore a trench coat and a fedora when I was that age myself.

Is there a part of you that identifies with these guys, how they were outsiders in their community?

Sinofsky: I could absolutely relate — listening to a different kind of music, wearing all black, and simply feeling different from those around you.

Because Damien, Jason, and Jessie were different, I understand why the police focused on them, and why these three were arrested. In so many of these recent exonerations, you see a police attitude of not looking for the person who did it but who they can pin it on. The West Memphis police saw a weak link in Jessie Misskelley, and were able to manipulate him into a false confession. It was terrible police work, and what they did was abhorrent. Add to it the fact that the defense counsel was not very experienced. Then you have all these local ministers and preachers who were saying these guys were guilty, and the jury pool becomes polluted with people who’ve been hearing these things at church, and reading and watching all the local news. I mean, what was the jury supposed to think? It was the perfect mess. Not the perfect storm. The perfect mess.

What lessons can be drawn from the West Memphis Three’s wrongful conviction? And what changes can be made to our legal system to prevent these kinds of injustices?

Berlinger: First of all, when somebody is brought in by the police for interrogation, a video camera should go on from start to finish and shouldn’t be turned off until the interrogation is over. There’s no rational reason for that not to happen other than police wanting to keep some of their methods private.

Another factor in this case was that in some states, including Arkansas, it’s legal for the original trial judge to be the judge who hears the appeals. Judge [David] Burnett was the original judge but also the appellate judge, which is ludicrous. There’s no way that the original trial judge is capable of determining that the original trial was not handled properly. The original trial judge should never be the one who hears post-conviction appeals.

The other thing that needs to change is that in many states — again, Arkansas included — judges are elected. When people are beholden to an electorate, I question some of the decisions that are made. I think people in the justice system should be appointed so that they don’t feel subject to popular opinion in order to win or maintain a political office.

Finally, I think the primary lesson of these films is that there’s no moral justification for the death penalty, because we can see how easy it is for an innocent person to be put to death. If Echols hadn’t had three films about him, and the celebrity support that he’s had — which translated into millions of dollars to mount a very expensive appeal — if he was just some unknown person, he would have been executed by now. You cannot have executions in a system run by human beings who have proven themselves to be less than perfect in determining guilt or innocence.

I have a friend named Byron Case who’s serving a life sentence in Missouri for a murder I believe he didn’t commit. What advice do you have for people like Byron who find themselves in a situation similar to the West Memphis Three?

Sinofsky: These stories are far too common. The idea is to get as many people’s eyeballs on the situation as possible. Getting broader support is very helpful, because when the authorities know that somebody is watching, it unnerves them. It’s because people were watching the West Memphis Three for 18 years that there was ultimately enough pressure on the Arkansas attorney general and the justice system as a whole to find a way to get these guys out of jail. Everyone knew that if they had gotten a new trial, they would be found innocent.

Why do you think some people persist in their belief that the West Memphis Three committed the murders, despite all the evidence that points to their innocence?

Sinofsky: I think for some people who thought they were guilty from the beginning it’s hard to let go. They say, “Well, not everything came out in the films,” and I always ask, “What do you think didn’t come out?” They never have an answer. They say it’s a belief, a gut belief. Look, Joe and I sat through every day of the trial, and our gut belief is that they didn’t do it. Now, with some of the new evidence that’s come to light, even some of the victims’ families have come to believe that the West Memphis Three were innocent. One couple still believes that Damien, Jason, and Jessie killed their son, but in a way I can understand. I feel deeply for any family members of the victims and what they’ve lost.

If the West Memphis Three are innocent, who really killed the three 8-year-old victims?

Berlinger: You know, we spent 18 years trying to figure that out and I’m no closer to knowing the answer today than I was 18 years ago. It would be irresponsible for me to put forward a theory. All I can say for sure is that the West Memphis Three didn’t do it. And that it should never be the burden of a defendant to have to prove who the real culprit was.

It’s been about five months since the West Memphis Three were released. How are they doing these days?

Sinofsky: They’re doing well. Jason’s in Seattle. He’s going back to school. He wants to be a lawyer and work for a group like the Innocence Project. I think Damien will always be out there working to help people who are going through the same situation he’s been through. Damien just got back from a trip to New Zealand with Peter Jackson. I think he has a small part in [Jackson's upcoming film] The Hobbit, which is great. Look, these guys were robbed of so much — anything they do that’s new and different than what they experienced for 18 years of jail is fine by me.

At this point, it’s just great to have their cell numbers on my cell phone. To be able to call them up or to get a call from them feels really, really good. It’s nice to know we can be friends without having a camera and filming at all times. I really want Damien and Jason and Jessie to go on and have a great life out in the world. It’s what I’ve been praying for over the years. I’d find myself praying from time to time and I’d always say, “I hope someday these guys get out.” And they did.

Davy Rothbart is the creator of Found magazine, editor of the Found books, author of the story collection The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, and a frequent contributor to public radio’s This American Life. He’s also the founder of an annual hiking trip for inner-city kids called Washington II Washington. His book of essays, My Heart Is an Idiot, will be released in September.


Previously from Davy Rothbart:
What’s Your Deal? With Soul Singer Mayer Hawthorne
What’s Your Deal? With Anne Buford, Director of Elevate
What’s Your Deal? With Richard Jenkins
What’s Your Deal? With Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko
What’s Your Deal? With Joseph Gordon-Levitt
What’s Your Deal? With Dominic Fredianelli

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Filed Under: Art, General topics, Interviews

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