Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills – Neither tragedy nor triumph, but somewhere in-between
4 Stars out of 4
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills is a documentary about a trial that makes you want to scream for all the wrong and right reasons. Three murder suspects were given their justice and, as we are taught, justice is good. But how the verdict was decided is what makes the trial of the West Memphis 3 a tragedy in the courtroom, where justice may have been served but perhaps too carelessly. Paradise Lost examines, on a figurative note, the death of impartiality.
The trial was based on the murders of three young boys: Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch. Their bodies were found naked, hogtied, and mutilated in a forest in West Memphis, Arkansas. The disturbing state of the victims led townsfolk, media, and the courts to believe these murders were tied to a Satanic ritual. Three teenagers were charged: Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin. Jessie apparently confessed towards their involvement, though he claimed he wasn’t the most active participant.
There are more details to the killings, but some so disturbing and inconceivably vile that I would rather not stomach further description. There were two trials, one regarding Jessie’s confession and the other surrounding the conviction of Damien and Jason. Both trials contained very sketchy evidence. Jessie’s interrogation was never actually recorded, and only part of his confession was, which he eventually retracted. Damien, a name that didn’t help his status, was accused of practicing in the Occult, based on “The Book of Shadows” they found in his room. Damien explains that fascination is more to the level of bedside reading.
The trial thickened. There were witnesses who claimed Damien said he killed the young boys and would kill 2 more very soon. Damien denies this. Jason is the quietest of all suspects, who has almost no tie to the murders except for his association with Damien. The trials seem to centre on satanism, which explains this documentary’s title coined after John Milton’s famous poem. The notions of satanism argued in the trial are particularly unconvincing. An “expert occultist” acts as one voice of evidence against the boys, but his credentials consist of a degree at a mail-order university that didn’t require homework or tests.
There’s more. The type of mutilation performed on the young boys is the work of a true expert. It would require a scalpel, great attention, and tremendous dexterity. A pathologist claims it is almost impossible work this precise could be carried out so quickly and in the harsh, muddy, mosquito-infested conditions the boys would have been in.
As the documentary continues, a shocking twist naturally interrupts the trial. The stepfather of one of the victims, John Mark Byers, hands a knife to the filmmakers as a gift. It turns out there was blood on it and it was handed to police immediately as evidence. The blood on the knife matched both Byers and one of the victims, so that evidence was dismissed inconclusive. Byers was originally known for creating a video that recounted the grisly murders at the scene of the crime and then swearing an oath of vengeance to the camera. Who knows his motives or darker secrets.
Paradise Lost is a documentary not meant to persuade but to dissuade. Paradise Lost wants to expose what was alarmingly vague and debatable about the trials of these three boys and how the West Memphis courts may have ignored the closer elements that could have met their eyes. It’s a very long endeavour, but that run time is meant to allow us to slip into the trial and feel as if we lived it.
It’s remarkable how directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky gain so much access to this story. The film would be nothing without its behind-the-scenes footage that covers both trials’ process, interviews with the lawyers, sessions in the judge’s chamber, the media outside (who weren’t, unlike us, allowed in), and other interviews with the victim’s family. There’s one scene when a father of one of the victims is appalled that the defendants were encouraged to dress presentably. The father says they should dress like the animals that they are. He then concludes by lamenting: “it’s the victims who have no rights.” I understand that.
The film is kind of brilliant in how it doesn’t study the facts but the point of views. There’s a cold objectivity in the centre of Paradise Lost, because it wants to suggest both sides, the guilty and innocent, are in question. No one was right, no one was wrong. This trial didn’t deserve a verdict, but a question mark. It was best an unsolved mystery than a solved one. By the end, you are uncertain how to feel, though there is an unwelcoming nausea that implies the alleged killers were not in fact that. There is no tragedy or triumph, but somewhere in between, a bitter taste of uncertainty, that leaves us cold.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills is a documentary that leaves you cold, uncertain, and answerless. These should be criticisms, but are actually the film’s biggest strengths. There are two results: a magnificent film and a magnificently unfair sentence. Jessie Misskelly was convicted on three counts of capital murder, as was Damien and Jason. Damien was sentenced to lethal injection, Jason for life. Those verdicts would be successfully appealed.
There’s an undeniable sense of drainage once the documentary is over. It ends very quickly. You feel hurt that three young boys were slaughtered, the pain their loved ones experienced, and the unfairness manifested in the courtrooms. Now, do I think those boys were guilty or not guilty? That’s not my call. Paradise Lost doesn’t want to satisfy our questions, but push forward the speculation. In Paradise Lost, we may have witnessed pure retribution or a modern day witch trial. This is a great film.
Note: Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin were set free from prison on a plea bargain on August 19, 2011. A new documentary titled “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” is set to first release at the Toronto International Film Festival.