Rarely is the power of filmmaking so starkly evident as with the release last August of three innocent men convicted of the murders of three eight-year-old boys in 1993.
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” is the third – count ‘em – in a series of documentaries starting in 1996 by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, backed by Sheila Nevins at HBO, to chronicle the injustices perpetrated by the Arkansas judicial system against the men who became known as the West Memphis Three.
The filmmakers refused to give up. HBO declined to move on. The public pressure and national scrutiny meant that this travesty — a betrayal of the young murder victims and a horror story for the wrongly convicted — would not be ignored.
Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley were freed in August after 18 years in prison under an obscure statute that allowed the state to avoid fessing up to its misdeeds.
Their story, a must-see for anybody who cares about justice, is laid out in all its cynical truth in the last of the series which airs on Thursday night on HBO, and is short-listed for the Oscar.
I got to meet Baldwin, a soft-spoken and gentle 34-year-old, on his first visit to Los Angeles this week. He went to prison at age 16, and is still discovering the outside world.
“I’m picking up where I was at 16,” he said. “I just got my driver’s license, got a car.”
He doesn’t seem angry.
“You can’t be angry, it just ruins your life,” he said. “For a long time I was in a state of bewilderment and helplessness. And then as you learn about the techniques used in the investigation – threatening people to lie… they lost evidence, they took blood scrapings and never followed up…”
Baldwin had every reason to believe it was impossible to convict him. He had a strong alibi, having spent the day at school, after which he cut a relative’s lawn and then went with friends to play video games at Wal-Mart.
But the defense attorney never called witnesses. A confession squeezed out under pressure from Misskelley – who is mildly mentally disabled – achieved the desired conviction.
It took years even after DNA evidence became available to get it tested and to prove there was no link between the three men and matter left at the crime scene.
The state dragged its heels, rejected the arguments for years. Finally the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to allow a new evidentiary hearing. But rather than allow the new facts to emerge, Arkansas prosecutors dug up an obscure statute under which the three convicts pleaded guilty while professing their innocence and accepting the sentence of time served.
This means they cannot sue the state for civil damages. Imprisoned as teenagers, the West Memphis Three are now nearly in their mid-30s and finally free – though not yet exonerated.
Baldwin, who had waited this long for justice, did not want to take the deal, but did so because Echols was languishing on death row, and Misskelley’s father was ill.
“These guys got railroaded at trial,” said Berlinger. “I’m glad it’s over. I have marked much of my life – my daughter’s first steps, going to school – by comparing it to those guys who were rotting in prison.”
Berlinger and Sinofsky, in their 20s at the time, went to Arkansas to chase down a dramatic story about supposedly satanic young murderers. After spending time with the victims and the accused, they quickly concluded that the teenagers were being railroaded.
“We walked away from the first interviews thinking something was wrong,” said Berlinger. “This guy (Baldwin) dripped with credibility. The thing that always rose to the top was none of this makes sense. There was no blood or body tissue at the crime scene. And these were three unprofessional teens."
The new film suggests a possible link with Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the dead boys. A hair on the bodies tested in 2007 rules out the three who were convicted, and ruled in Hobbs. But so far no further testing has been conducted, and the DNA has not been used to find other suspects.
Baldwin is wary of naming potential suspects. “After what happened to me, I’m terrified to point a finger,” he said.
He is currently living in Seattle, where he is living off the donations of supporters, and will start soon at community college on a full scholarship.
He wants to go to law school. “If I can get training,” he said, “maybe I can help people in similar situations.”