Recently, Chris was out of town for about 2 weeks. During my time without him I thought it would be good to watch stuff I wanted to see but knew Chris wouldn’t be interested in. The first day I was alone without him, I scrolled through my queue of movies and found Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which I had heard about only because it was on a list of Louis Theroux’s favorite documentaries. Not that it’s a subject I enjoy, but anything with “child murders” in the title I knew would be a no-go for Chris. So I started watching it with literally no idea as to what it was about, except child murders. So I really had no idea I was about to go down this crazy rabbit hole that would lead me to three additional documentaries and knowledge that is both empowering and terrifying.
All four of these documentaries are about The West Memphis 3 and the murders that began everything. In 1993, three boys were raped and murdered; one had been castrated. This happened in West Memphis, Arkansas, which maybe is not the most forward-thinking place around. The cops immediately focused in on Damien Echols, who was 18 when they arrested him. They zeroed in on him because the cops immediately thought it was a Satanic killing, due to the boys being raped and tied up and what appeared to be their clothes wrapped around sticks placed in the mud. The cops contacted the local juvenile detention center cop and asked if he knew of any kids who might be into Satanic stuff and he immediately thought of Echols, who had had run-ins for shoplifting, who wore black clothing and listened to heavy metal music. Jason Baldwin, 16, was his best friend and Jessie Misskelley, 17, was their sometimes hangout buddy. They questioned Misskelley, who is also mildly retarded, for 12 hours without any of his family members present. They only recorded the last 45 minutes, where Misskelley confesses to being there when Echols and Baldwin kill the kids. But the confession doesn’t make sense with what happened and he mostly just agrees and repeats what the cops tell him. The cops arrested all three and sentenced Misskelley to life plus forty years, even though his entire wrestling team testified to Misskelley being a town away at a wrestling match, at which Misskelley also signed and dated a sign-in sheet for. Echols was convicted and sentenced to death by lethal injection; Baldwin was convicted and sentenced to life without parole. This was also despite sworn alibis and lack of any physical evidence.
So when I finished the first Paradise Lost, I knew it ended in the mid-90s and I immediately needed to know what happened. I couldn’t believe I had never heard of all of this before. It was so scary to think of these three kids being killed and three other kids being put in prison, one sentenced to death, for something they clearly didn’t do.
Over the course of the next two Paradise Lost movies, they explore possible other suspects and the convicteds’ constant efforts to appeal their sentences. This seems like it should get easier as more and more DNA exonerates them from being anywhere near the crime, but a lot of political and legal red tape keeps getting in the way (like the original trial judge being the only judge to see these appeals and he’s the only one who can allow a new judge to take over). In the end of the Paradise Lost movies, we never find the killer but the convicted are finally freed based on something bizarre called the Alford Plea in which they maintain their innocence but plead guilty and the judge lets them out based on time served. Even though the judge gave a heartfelt speech at the end in which he acknowledged the legal system had completely failed these men, it did little to hide the fact that Arkansas just couldn’t man up and admit that they falsely convicted and imprisoned these men.
A few days after I finished the trilogy, I watched West of Memphis, which is the most recent and is separate from the Paradise Lost trilogy. It was really long, but was also really comprehensive. It also had the most updated information and the hindsight to go with it. They revealed how the defense was able to raise money to hire awesome experts and DNA analysis that further exonerated them but also pointed more and more to one of the victims’ stepfathers. The passing of time also lets this documentary explain that they’ve since found out that the boys were not in fact raped and the one boy was not in fact castrated and all of the crazy injuries everyone thought were ritualistic, like the castration, was caused post-mortem by animals. So in a way, even though these boys still died horribly, it’s slightly less horrible than everyone originally thought. They also did a really good job at explaining all the Alford Plea craziness.
This story is downright insane from every angle, and totally horrifying and scary from every angle. I know there’s a movie about it out now, Devil’s Knot, but these documentaries are so incredible everyone should watch these instead. And I will say I found West of Memphis to be significantly less brutal and probably more focused. But these are stories people definitely should know about.