The Boston Phoenix
March 9 - 16, 2000


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Paradise: Still lost

State of the Art

by Peg Aloi

Bruce Sinofsky On May 5, 1993, three eight-year-old boys were savagely murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., were accused of murdering Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers in what police deemed a ritualistic killing by a Satanic cult. Echols had clashed with the police before: in his impoverished Bible Belt community, he was viewed with suspicion because he dressed in black, listened to heavy metal, and practiced wicca. Despite the lack of any significant physical evidence, the failure to investigate several key suspects (including the father of one of the victims), the dubious testimony of prejudicial witnesses (including an expert for the prosecution with a mail-order degree in occult crime), and a contradiction-riddled confession from Misskelley (who has an IQ of 72), all three were convicted. Filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger chronicled the trial and the surrounding events in their award-winning HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Now, four years later, a sequel is about to be released: Paradise Lost 2: Revelations.

"When HBO first approached us to do a follow-up film, we were not too keen on it, to be honest," says Sinofsky in a Manhattan café. "We could never definitively say they didn't do it, but what we could say was that there was not a fair trial and justice wasn't served." Berlinger, speaking from Baltimore, where he is filming a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, concurs: "From a filmmaking standpoint, it was like revisiting the same ground -- plus it is just an ugly, depressing, emotionally draining story. But the important thing is that this story still needs to be told. It can't be swept under the rug."

Echols, now 24, is on Death Row. Baldwin, 21, and Misskelley, 25, are serving life sentences. But Paradise Lost has gained, well, a cult following: a high-profile rock-and-roll benefit CD to be released in June features tracks by Rocket from the Crypt, Willie Nelson, Tom Waits, and many others. And Los Angeles-based activists founded the West Memphis Three Support Fund, an Internet-based organization that provides detailed information on the case. The group contacted forensics specialist Brent Turvey, whose findings have highlighted evidence that was previously ignored or played down.

One of the many significant developments has been the involvement of prominent lawyers like Ed Mallett of Houston and DNA expert Barry Scheck of O.J. fame, who are offering their services to Echols pro bono (as is Attorney Dan Stidham, who is still defending Misskelley). Sinofsky says, "Although Barry Scheck would never admit it, the reason that these guys are involved is because of the film, because without it Damien would probably be dead right now. He [Echols] was going to give up his appeals and ask to be put to death. I think because of the support fund and the thousands of people who write to him and express concern and hope, it has made a big difference."

Although Echols's first appeal was denied in an Arkansas court (by the judge who sentenced him to death), a federal appeal is being filed. Says Berlinger: "This happened in a very fundamentalist, Bible-thumping part of the country where they preach every Sunday that the devil is out there. I hope this film has an effect on a national level, to wake people up to see what has happened."

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations premieres on HBO this Monday, March 13, at 10 p.m. For more information visit

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