In 1994, three teens were tried and convicted of the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Ark. The convicted men became known as the "West Memphis Three." Damien Echols was sentenced to death and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin received life sentences. The trial drew national attention, due in part to the HBO documentary series Paradise Lost, produced by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
The first documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill — which aired in 1996 — raised doubts about the legitimacy of the evidence used to convict the three men. The second film, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, follows appeals and further breakdowns in the prosecution. The last installment, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory — nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary category — chronicles their release.
"If it weren't for Joe and Bruce," Baldwin tells NPR's John Donvan, "we would have been forgotten. No one would have known about this injustice, and [Damien] would have been murdered."
The filmmakers arrived in West Memphis within days of the arrests in 1993 and embedded with the community for about eight months before the trial began. "Frankly, we went down thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers," Berlinger says. "The press reports coming out of West Memphis, Ark., were as if this was an open-and-shut case."
During a press conference after announcing the charges against the boys in 1993, the chief investigator Gary Gitchell was asked how solid the case was on a scale of one to 10. Gitchell famously replied, "11."
"The West Memphis Three" were freed in August 2011, after serving 18 years in prison. An unusual legal maneuver called an Alford plea, allowed them to plead guilty to lesser charges, while asserting their innocence and getting released for time served.
"The only reason that I took the deal was to save Damien," says Baldwin. "I was willing to stay a little bit longer, you know, to fight the good fight, you know, to go to trials."
The initial film raised questions and inspired celebrities such as actor Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, to bring attention to the case. During the course of the project, Berlinger says that he and Sinofsky realized they'd transformed from observers to advocates.
"It raises a lot of ... interesting philosophical questions about what the role of the documentarian is," Berlinger says. "Where is the line between journalism and advocacy? That's an important question."
Baldwin, who lives in Seattle, Wash., continues to adjust to life out of prison. He feels that there is still more justice to be done. "We still ... think the best course of action for them, for the state would have been just to drop all charges ... because it'll open the case back up ... to continue, you know, the efforts to find who really murdered those boys."
JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
Nearly 20 years ago, three young men were tried and convicted of murdering three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Those three young men who were convicted - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin - became known as the West Memphis Three. They also became a cause. While many in their community were convinced of their guilt, many outsiders believed that they were innocent and that their convictions were based on weak evidence and on faulty arguments.
One definite catalyst in this process was a series of documentaries made about the case all under the title of "Paradise Lost." The series of three documentaries told the stories of all of the people involved and kept alive the doubts about the convictions. The first one aired back in the mid-1990s. The most recent one just launched on HBO within the past few days. And in that documentary, at long last, the men go free. Joe Berlinger is the director and producer of the "Paradise Lost" series. He joins us now by phone from his home office in Westchester County, New York. Joe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JOE BERLINGER: Hey. Thanks for having me.
DONVAN: Thanks for having us - for making the effort today. I know that you're feeling a lit bit under the weather...
DONVAN: ...and we do appreciate it.
BERLINGER: If I cough on air, you'll understand.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: I was trying to pave the way for that excuse. So, Joe, you know, there are a lot of murder stories, and there are a lot of controversial trials out there all the time. Why, back in 1993, 1994, did you pick this one to make a documentary about?
BERLINGER: Well, one of the fascinating things about the journey of this three films over two decades that Bruce Sinofsky - the co-filmmaker - and I undertook is that when we first went down - we actually arrived in West Memphis, Arkansas, within days of the arrests, embedded ourselves in the community for about eight months prior to the start of the trials. And frankly, we went down thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers, because the press reports coming out of West Memphis, Arkansas were as if this was an open-and-shut case with a confession, with - on the scale of one to 10 - the police and chief investigator said on the scale of one to 10, it's an 11.
And so the, you know, what sent us down was actually Sheila Nevins clipping an article. Sheila's the head of documentaries at HBO. And we all talked about the idea, wow, how could three teenagers be so rotten that they could do such a thing? Let's go explore disaffected youth. The great irony, of course, is that within a few months, we realized that something was quite wrong here, that the evidence was quite weak, that the defendants were very credible in their maintenance of innocence. And I guess, even then, we still had the naive belief it would work it - you know, it would work itself out at trial.
DONVAN: And the other thing that happened to you in this - we're talking about 18 years ago. There was - there would be no way that you could imagine 18 years ago that 18 years later, this will still be part of your life's work.
BERLINGER: Yeah. No. It's - the amount of problems in this case and the inability for people to admit that they made a mistake is just mindboggling and has compounded over the years. But, you know, when we started feeling like these guys might be innocent, we still thought at the trial everything would work itself out. And that trial just was jaw-dropping in its - you know, the country was kind of coming off of a satanic hysteria, fear of satanic cults...
DONVAN: Well, take a minute and tell us the story of the convictions, very briefly, why these three boys were picked up as the killers.
BERLINGER: Well, three eight-year-olds were found in a wooded area off the interstate in West Memphis, Arkansas, in a creek, in a bayou. And they had been hogtied, and they had wounds on their bodies that we now know some of those wounds - I mean, these kids were obviously murdered, but some of these wounds were horrific. We now know that those wounds were caused by post-mortem animal predation. You know, the animals found these bodies after they were dumped in this site. But at the time, those wounds were attributed to satanic ritual by three local teenagers. The alleged ringleader was a guy named Damien Echols who, you know, dressed in black and likes Metallica music. You know, that type of thing, but...
DONVAN: He looked the part, of course.
BERLINGER: He looked the part. And this - but there was virtually no physical evidence linking these guys to the crime. And it was literally Metallica lyrics and Stephen King novels, you know, being introduced into the trial as evidence that these guys are twisted, demonic killers, and it was jaw-dropping.
DONVAN: Well, after many, many questions were raised about the evidence, and it's a very, very tangled tale, last August, what happens?
BERLINGER: Well, after, you know, major, major investigations, you know, Peter Jackson who has since made himself a public figure on this - during a big chunk of this time, you know, Peter, you know, kept a low profile. But he was paying for - Peter Jackson, the filmmaker, had seen "Paradise Lost," was very moved by it. And he and his partner, Fran Walsh, decided to get involved and started paying for an investigation that led to some huge investigatory breakthroughs. And the Arkansas Supreme Court had ordered that there would be an evidentiary hearing in December of 2011, and the state of Arkansas, I think, feared that scenario. It was the first positive movement for the West Memphis Three in this case in 18 years.
And in lieu of going through with that evidentiary hearing, they released these guys on a - in a rarely used legal maneuver called an Alford plea, in which these guys plead guilty to lesser charges. In other words, the capital murder charges, you know, Echols was on death row and the other two were life without parole, you know. So the death sentence was vacated. The life sentences were vacated, and they plead guilty to lesser charges of first degree murder while still maintaining their innocence.
DONVAN: All right. I...
BERLINGER: That's what the Alford plea is all about.
DONVAN: And I - what sense is that? So in other words, they're saying, we're not guilty. We plead guilty. And the state says, we know you're guilty. We're letting you go.
BERLINGER: It allows the state of Arkansas, basically, to save face because by pleading guilty - well, what's in it for the West Memphis Three is they get to - they end 18 years of wrongful imprisonment of this nightmare of incarceration, and it's a very imperfect ending. But if I was on death row, being treated the way Echols was treated, I would have taken the deal too.
DONVAN: Right. Right.
BERLINGER: But what the state of Arkansas gets out of it is no prosecutorial accountability for some of the decisions that were made. The West Memphis Three can't sue for wrongful conviction, and it just kind of lets everyone walk away from this, you know, unscathed, which I think, you know, is extremely problematic.
DONVAN: It's a mess, really. I want to bring in Jason Baldwin. Jason Baldwin is one of the three young men who was arrested and spent 18 years in prison, maintaining his innocence the entire time. Jason, you're joining us from Seattle, Washington. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JASON BALDWIN: Thank you for having me here. How do you do?
DONVAN: I'm fine. Thank you. And it's a pleasure to have you on the program.
BALDWIN: Hi, Joe. It's good to hear your voice.
BERLINGER: Hey. How are you doing, man?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: So how old...
DONVAN: ...were you when you went in, Jason?
BALDWIN: I was just a little over 16 years old.
DONVAN: So that makes you now - help me on the math.
DONVAN: You're 34 years old. So you...
BALDWIN: Going on 35.
DONVAN: And to the miracle of technology, I understand, you're communicating with us via your iPhone, and you probably didn't know what an iPhone was really until a few months ago, I'm guessing. You missed a lot.
BALDWIN: Well, you see them on TV, you know...
DONVAN: Could you...
BALDWIN: ...commercials and magazines, stuff like that, you know.
DONVAN: My point is...
BALDWIN: But using one is different.
DONVAN: Yeah. You missed an awful lot of your life so far, being inside.
BALDWIN: That is true.
DONVAN: Do you feel that you owe your freedom to these filmmakers?
BALDWIN: Well, yeah. If it weren't for Joe and Bruce, you know, being down there at that time filming the trial and capturing it all on film, the only story that the public would have known was the one, you know, put forth by the prosecution, and it was an incorrect story. And had that have happened, you know, like Damien says in "PL3," you know, we would have been forgotten. No one would have known about this injustice, and he would have been murdered. And Jessie and I would have spent the rest of our lives in that horrible place. I saw them filming it and capturing it and, you know, showing it to, you know, in the light of the world and everyone have seeing it. You know, everyone was able to rally, you know, rally and cry for justice and, you know, donate time and energy to, you know, righting the wrong.
DONVAN: And how do you - what is your feeling about this plea that you entered, where you've said, we're guilty. But we say we're innocent, but we're pleading guilty? How did you come to the conclusion that that was what you needed to do? It was a...
DONVAN: ...or like Joe said, it was just to get out. Was it a way to get out?
BALDWIN: Well, the only reason that I took the deal was to save Damien. You know, that was the only thing offered to me by the state after having to spent 18 years there in prison for a crime I didn't commit. But I was willing to stay a little bit longer, you know, to fight the good fight, you know, to go to trials. I have wonderful attorneys now who are, as Joe pointed out, you know, they've been well-funded for DNA testing and other forensic technology testing be done and things like that. So I was very confident in them and their capabilities, and, you know, you are ready to go to trial and fight the case, you know, and win our freedom in the way, you know, things are supposed to be done. But, you know...
DONVAN: So if Damien...
BALDWIN: ...I hate to ask Damien to spend one more day in that place, where he was at.
DONVAN: And if - I'm sorry to interrupt you. If Damien...
BALDWIN: It's all right.
DONVAN: ...had not been facing the death sentence, a death penalty, would you then would have been willing to stay in this, not take this plea and fight another trial, take that risk?
BALDWIN: Of course. Even though one day spent there was an injustice. One more day is an injustice, and I deserve nothing than be out right now, but I ought to keep on fighting, you know? And, in fact, I turned a deal down at first and - but, you know, I was told Jessie had taken the deal. Damien had taken the deal, and the only way the deal would be good is if all three of us took the deal. The state was not going to permit, you know, me to continue fighting the charges there and fight, you know, and eventually win the trial and sue them for wrongful commission. That's not what they wanted, you know. It's like Joe said earlier, you know, they knew this upcoming evidentiary hearing was going to be egg in their face.
DONVAN: All right.
BALDWIN: They knew they were going to lose and have to release us, and, you know, lose all this taxpayer money on funding the re-hearings and a retrial eventually and then top it all off with a civil suit. So, you know, they're looking out for their interests and the interest of the state in that matter. We still...
DONVAN: Well, we're talking...
BALDWIN: ...think the best course of action for them, for the state would have been just to drop all charges. That would have save the taxpayers the money of the retrials, you know, and the hearings and everything. But - and it would have been the right thing to do because it'll open the case back up for, you know, people to continue, you know, the efforts to find who really murdered those boys.
DONVAN: All right. We're talking to Jason Baldwin. He is the subject of the documentary - one of the subjects of the documentary series "Paradise Lost," and Joe Berlinger, who made the series. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Joe, I used the word catalyst in the beginning when I said that your film was a catalyst in the process that ultimately led to this decision. I' not sure catalyst is the right word because a catalyst is a chemical that doesn't really get involved in the reaction. But as filmmakers, you became part of the story in quite fascinating ways. Ultimately, I believe, the judge made a decision not to let cameras back in later in the courtroom, and the arrangements that you had with defense attorneys became material in - later in the process when it became a negative, a liability, it appears, for the defendants, that those attorneys were - had a deal with you and an arrangement with you. It became an issue that you were paying money to the families, all six families involved, the families of the victims and the families of the accused, in the form of honoraria. And so, was that a part - a role in this story that you had hoped not to have happened? In other words, did you want to stay on the outside and not become part of the story?
BERLINGER: Well, yeah. You know, I mean, we come from a classic cinema verite tradition, where we are supposed to observe events but not change them. And over time, the films, you know, definitely became part of the story, and, you know, it raises a lot of, you know, a lot of interesting philosophical questions about what the role of the documentarian is. And we definitely went from initially going down as observers to advocates. And, you know, where is the line between journalism and advocacy? That's an important question.
DONVAN: But your starting goal was not to be an advocate. You wanted to be a fly on the wall.
BERLINGER: Well, as - and to tell the opposite story, you know?
BERLINGER: You know, I had - unfortunately, I seemed to be - I seem to have a knack for getting drawn into my own stories. You know, I made a film in 2009 about a lawsuit in the Amazon rainforest. It's a subject of the movie "Crude." And then Chevron, who is a part of that story, decided to sue me and seek access to my outtakes, and those outtakes were turned over to Chevron because I lost court case. And so, therefore, that film also has become a part of that story.
BERLINGER: I think it's the hazard of the business.
DONVAN: Here's another hazard I want to raise with you, the guy who wants to be on camera a heck of a lot. Now, you had one of the stepfathers of one of the victims, a man named John Mark Byers, apparently really liked to be on television, like to be on HBO, and he became very, very available to you. And ultimately, he gets thrown into the story as a suspect in the case later on. And your second - the second installation of your series alludes a great deal to the possibility that he - that there might be case against him. And he takes every opportunity there is, it appears, to talk to your cameras. He's constantly turning to the lens and talking into the camera, and he speaks in a language that sounds almost as though he scripted things in his head.
Here's a scene in the film, in part two, where he builds - he digs false graves for the three teenagers who were serving time in prison and sets them on fire and starts stomping on the ground. Let's listen to this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PARADISE LOST 2: REVELATIONS")
JOHN MARK BYERS: (as self) I Stomp on your grave. I stomp on your grave. Burn and go to hell. Burn like you deserve to burn.
DONVAN: Wow. Is a guy like that a gift for a filmmaker or is it a bit of a problem?
BERLINGER: Well, from a cinematic standpoint, he was a fascinating person to film. And, you know, I think there's been some confusion with him and audiences with regard to us pointing a finger at him, versus us following the story of other people having suspicion towards him. And, you know, we were there as chroniclers of the case and as suspicion was directed toward certain individuals, we were not creating that suspicion. We were following it, you know. So I think, all in all - look, my - no one - the films have never said that Byers was responsible for this crime...
BERLINGER: ...nor - or nor is the new film saying that the suspicion directed towards Mr. Hobbs means he's the killer. The film is following the investigation that other people are doing, you know, involved in this case.
BERLINGER: And more importantly, you know, when a jury is instructed to find a death sentence, capital crime beyond, you know, find that verdict beyond - to arrive at that verdict beyond all reasonable doubt, I think it's, you know, journalistically accurate.
DONVAN: OK. Joe, I'm sorry to cut you off. We're going to go right into a break. The third installment is now playing on HBO. It's short-listed for an Oscar Award. I want to thank Joe Berlinger for joining us from his home in Westchester County, and Jason Baldwin for joining us from Seattle, Washington. Thanks both for your time. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.