When news came that the “West Memphis Three” would be freed on Friday, documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger and his collaborator Bruce Sinofsky dropped everything and flew down to Arkansas.
The call came as the two were hard at work in the editing room, putting the final touches on “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the third film in their documentary series about the controversial Arkansas murder case. It premieres next month at the Toronto Film Festival, before beginning a January run on HBO.
“We were putting the film to bed,” Berlinger, left, told TheWrap. “We have to rush back to New York so we can work through the weekend and change the ending to a happier ending.”
For the pair, the release of the three convicted murderers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., was the culmination of more than a decade of work.
Berlinger and Sinofsky brought attention to the case and the problematic claims by prosecutors that the men had killed three 8-year-old boys as part of a satanic ritual through their earlier HBO films: “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996) and “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000).
“What better gift to a filmmaker than to see all this work come out like this,” Berlinger told TheWrap. “It’s an amazing moment.”
Though pleased that the subjects of his films will be free men, Berlinger is disappointed that the court did not fully overturn their convictions. Through a legal maneuver, the men will get to maintain their innocence, while acknowledging that there was enough evidence against them for a murder conviction.
“It’s tragic on many levels,” Berlinger said. “I wish the state had more courage to admit it made a mistake. Now these guys now have a sword of Damocles over their heads. They’re convicted killers, so if, God forbid, they get in an accident, the full weight of their prior conviction could come down on them.”
“It’s freedom, on the one hand, but it’s not full freedom,” he added. "These guys deserve a full exoneration."
The filmmaker is also upset that the state considers the case closed, despite DNA evidence that indicates that another individual may have been at the crime scene.
“We shouldn’t forget three families lost three 8-year-old children, and the decision to insist these guys are guilty means the police consider this case closed, which also means they’re not looking for the real killer,” Berlinger said. “So we have an unsolved crime now and the state of Arkansas is washing its hands.”
Berlinger said he believed that the movies would not have had the impact that they did, had it not been for the emergence of the internet, which helped the case gain prominence and helped supporters raise money for a costly appeals process.
The original documentary “happened to come out at right time. There was so much footage that it took two years to edit, and didn’t come out until 1996, when the internet first started becoming a social media tool,” Berlinger said. “If it had come out in 1994, I’m not sure the reaction would have been the same.”
Internet coverage attracted the attention of celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder and inspired a nationwide effort to free the men.
Pressure to overturn the convictions mounted, and recent evidence showed no DNA traces of the three men at the scene of the crime, which in turn put pressure on the state of Arkansas to let the men go free. Without an internet-based fundraising campaign, Berlinger said that Echols, who was on death row, could not have afforded an expensive series of appeals and would have been executed by now. Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences.
Berlinger is certain that the “West Memphis Three” aren’t the only prisoners who were let down by the legal system.
“The biggest lesson from this is if you find yourself a victim of a false conviction, go get a film made about you,” Berlinger said. “Of course many people are guilty and claim to be innocent, but there have been hundreds of DNA exonerations and there are many, many people who we don’t know their names, we don’t know their stories and they’re innocent.”
“The justice system is not about seeking the truth. The justice system is about who presents the best story,” he added.