Saturday, February 25, 2012

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

One of the nominees for tomorrow night's Documentary Feature Oscar, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" completes a 15-year, three-picture odyssey by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky chronicling the case of the West Memphis 3, then-teenagers convicted of the brutal 1993 murder of three eight-year old boys in Arkansas. The alleged ringleader, Damien Echols, seems to have had no connection to the crime, but wore black clothes and dyed his hair black and was wrongly identified as a satanist at a time of rampant hysteria. His constant-shadow best friend Jason Baldwin was seemingly found guilty by association, while a third friend, the mildly retarded Jessie Misskelley, gave a wildly implausible and shifting confession that implicated the three after twelve unbroken hours of repetitive police questioning.

It's been obvious for all this time that the West Memphis 3 were wrongly convicted, and Berlinger and Sinofsky have said they expected the first film in the trilogy to exonerate them as "The Thin Blue Line" did for Randall Dale Adams. But Errol Morris' landmark documentary ended with a virtual confession by David Harris to the murder of officer Robert Wood, while what's most interesting about the "Paradise Lost" films is the lack of a certain "real killer" - and the likelihood that neither the victims' families nor these wrongly convicted young men may ever get the finality and catharsis that the identification of the actual perpetrator would provide. (After the second film, I'd have bet anything that the stepfather of one of the victims had committed the murders; after this film, the evidence seems to point more toward another man, or perhaps the two of them together.)

On its own merits, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" falls short of perfection. Title cards divide it into three chapters, but the dividing lines are hazy and don't serve any clear purpose. The material all sort of runs together, and may have been better presented chronologically. Also, some of the highly implicating material from the second film is not reshown, and should have been (at almost two hours, the filmmakers certainly weren't aiming for brevity).

The trilogy as a whole, though, is four-star stuff. It brims with the emotions sparked by the best documentaries: simmering outrage, deep sympathy, tremendous humor, and sometimes outright astonishment, as when Echols, now in his mid-thirties with a receding hairline, says from prison that he does not wake up feeling sorry for himself or bemoaning, like so many inside, what he does not have: "All things considered, I have an amazing life."

In an epilogue to the story, the West Memphis 3 and the State of Arkansas entered into an Alford plea agreement last year, whereby the three pled guilty - conceding the state had enough evidence to convict them - while being released for time served and allowed to maintain their innocence. It's quite clear this arrangement is something less than justice, but in this imperfect world, for now, it's as good as they're going to get.

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