By Stacey Harrison
When word came in August that the West Memphis Three were going to be released after serving 18 years for the murder of three young boys, it provided an unexpected epilogue to a trilogy of documentaries that stirred an international controversy.
The third chapter in that trilogy, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, follows the continuing efforts to free Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were convicted of the brutal, seemingly ritualistic murders back in 1994 despite a lack of physical evidence. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky documented the case in 1996’s Paradise Lost, which ended with the trio’s convictions — Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life, while Echols was given the death penalty. In 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the filmmakers tracked the “Free the West Memphis Three” movement that the original film had spawned.
While there is quite a bit of backtracking and recapping in the new film, almost all of it adds a new dimension to what viewers of the previous installments thought they already knew. Misskelley sheds more light on the circumstances that led to him providing police a confession, and why he later recanted. There is also more exploration of the change of heart seen in one of the films’ most endlessly fascinating personalities, John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys who emphatically — and most theatrically — voiced his belief that the West Memphis Three were guilty, only to be persuaded otherwise by subsequent DNA evidence.
The jailhouse interviews with the Three show grown men, now in their 30s, struggling to make peace with the course their lives have taken. It’s especially poignant to hear Echols ruminate on the toll the years have taken on his body — from the onset of arthritis to a receding hairline — even though in his mind he’s still that teenager whose life was stopped so abruptly.
While the second film held interest by documenting the cause célèbre surrounding the West Memphis Three, its power was diluted somewhat by the story becoming removed from the actual crime that took place. Purgatory — an ironic title given the outcome, which occurred after the film had initially wrapped shooting — corrects all that, never letting viewers forget the tragedy that sparked this case, and providing even more valuable insight into the tragedy that followed.
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” premieres 9pm Jan. 12 on HBO, and will be followed immediately by airings of the first two “Paradise Lost” films.
Photo: Credit: Bob Richman/HBO