by Anthony Schnabel
At this point, everyone who owns a Netflix account has either watched or heard about the series “Making a Murderer,” a riveting story about Steven Avery, a man from Manitowoc County in Wisconsin, who served 18 years for a sexual assault he never committed. Shortly after being exonerated, Avery was arrested for the murder of Theresa Halbach, a Wisconsin photographer who was last seen on Avery’s property.
We might not all know the details of this strange case, but I refuse to elaborate any further because I could write for days about the topic. That said, if you’ve yet to watch this 10-part documentary, check it out on Netflix.
Instead of writing about Steven Avery, I’m going to recommend another documentary that will let viewers relive the feelings of despair “Making a Murderer” introduced us to — “Paradise Lost.”
I first found out about “Paradise” on a Reddit forum posting information about Avery. Perhaps what most drew me to it was its HBO credentials. I’m a fan of the network, so I knew I had better check it out.
“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” is the first of three documentaries that detail the trials of three teenage boys from West Memphis, Arkansas, who are now known as “The West Memphis Three.” In 1994, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin were tried and convicted of murdering and sexually mutilating three eight-year-old boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers.
Just like in “Murderer,” their case was fishy from the start. With some of the genetic material recovered from the crime scene not attributed to either the victims or the defendants, the prosecution already had a huge hole in their case. Perhaps the following trial’s most interesting element was the prosecution’s assertion that the teenagers had killed the boys as part of a Satanic ritual. All three boys had been considered “different” in their community making them easy targets for the accusations in their religious city.
The prosecution had one thing going for them. Misskelley was interrogated by police, and gave a confession claiming he and the two others killed the boys as part of Satanic ritual. The whole trial is based on the testimony of Misskelley, who has an IQ of 74, and couldn’t keep his story straight. Though the interrogation lasted 12 hours, only 46 minutes of the questioning was filmed and used in the case. The trial went on with doubt cast on the prosecution, but the boys were convicted and sentenced anyways. Echols was sentenced to death, Misskelley sentenced to life in prison plus two 20-year sentences, and Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment.
“Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” the second documentary by Joe Berlinger, and Bruce Sinofsky. revisits West Memphis, four years after the murders. The focus of the sequel is the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers, John Mark Byers. A compelling character in the first film, Byers displayed a love for the camera. The suspicion around him heightened when his wife died sometime between the two films, from unknown circumstances. Byers claims to this day he has no idea how his wife died and official records state her death as undetermined. Besides casting doubt around his innocence, the documentary touches on new information that the legal proceedings were mismanaged due to budget issues and the mishandling of essential DNA. The “West Memphis Three” remain in jail, but with a strong following and hope that new evidence will prove their innocence.
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” is the most popular of the three, chronicling the release of the convicted teenagers in 2011. At this point, the men have been in jail for 18 years and have gained constant support for their innocence. New evidence linking a possible suspect to the murders forces the Arkansas Supreme Court to grant an evidential hearing which led to a new trial. But four months before the hearing, a plea deal allowed the “West Memphis Three” to walk free. Fascinating enough, the way they were released was by entering an Alford plea. This type of plea allows the men to maintain their innocence, but requires them to plead guilty.
The national attention this trilogy grabbed was critical to the final verdict. Celebrities like Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson and Henry Rollins played roles in the exonerations. Metallica was also a huge part as they allowed their music to be used in the movie. “Purgatory” was nominated for an Oscar in documentary features in 2012, and all three films received positive critic reviews.