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Berlinger and Sinofsky's documentary of a gruesome triple murder in West Memphis, Arkansas and the subsequent trials of three suspects, takes a hard look at both the occult and the American justice system in 'small-town' America. Three teenagers are accused of this horrific crime of killing three children, supposedly as a result of involvement in Satanism. As in their previous documentary, things turn out to be more complex than initial appearances and this film presents the real-life courtroom drama to the viewer, as it unfolds. Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
Damien Wayne Echols:
I knew from when I was real small people were gonna know who I was, I always had that feeling... I just never knew how they were gonna learn. I kind of enjoy it now because even after I die, people are gonna remember me forever. People are gonna talk about me for years. People in West Memphis will tell their kids stories... It'll be sorta like I'm the West Memphis boogie man. Little kids will be looking under their beds - "Damien might be under there!"
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The question at hand in the film Paradise Lost is not as much did these three teenagers commit this heinous act, but rather was there enough evidence to convict them for the murders. The answer, presented by material in the film, is an unflinching no. There was only speculation and rumor to convict the three.
The film's strengths are that it doesn't preach, at least not in an overly wrought narrative, and it contains intimate moments with the accused and their families as well as the families of the victims. Being a victim of a violent crime to something of this degree I understand the pain and confusion of the victim's families. What is hard to understand is the bloodlust and need for revenge and retribution that immediately takes hold of them. The victims' families are the most terrifying aspect of this film. At one point the mother of the Byrnes child says in a hateful and spiteful tone "I hate them... I hate them and the mother's that bore them."
Is there anything wrong with being hellishly angry with someone who has butchered your child? No, quite natural really. But the point of this film is that judgment was passed on these kids long before the trial even started. I imagine the Bible belt is a very scary place to be raised in... I'll have to ask Brad Pitt what he thinks about it some time.
On the issue of the prosecution. They had next to nothing. A very questionable confession from a terrified kid, Jessie, with a 72 IQ, hearsay from a couple of kids who claim they heard Damien bragging about the murder but have no proof, a knife found behind Damien's house which doesn't match the wounds on the bodies, and the assertion that because Damien read about Wicca, he must be a Satanist.
To look at the three kids is also an interesting aspect of the film. Jessie, a very small and slow kid seems a bit lost in the world. His IQ is low but he has no previous records of any type of behavior that would associate him with murder. Jason speaks in short breathless words and seems also to suffer from a low IQ. Damien is the key to everything in this film though. The defense made the key mistake of letting Damien take the stand for two reasons. The first reason is that Damien appears to have ADD and after the first 10 minutes of questioning he sort of fades away and answers in bland yes and no's. The second reason, and the most important, is that Damien is obviously extremely bright. Normally this wouldn't seem to be a problem but judging from every single person the filmmakers put on camera, smart people are hard to come by in that area of the world. Damien scared them.
All of this adds up to the fact that there was not enough evidence to put these kids away and there were other, more sinister and shocking, suspects that needed to be pursued. The war rages on for the West Memphis Three and it is indeed frightening to think that they did it, and terrifying to think they didn't.
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