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Home » Culture and Criticism

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and the Mixing of Blessings

Submitted by on October 11, 2011 – 8:33 PM12 Comments

Joe R and I walked into Alice Tully Hall last night and I spotted him right away, on a balcony entrance above us: Damien Echols, surveying the scene. Right there, in a sharp black shirt and blue Bono shades — just right there! I gave Joe the “fame ahoy” arm-whap and pointed up. Then I stopped in the middle of the swirl of ticket-holders and looked at Damien like you look at a rainbow. I wanted to take a picture, but I knew I wouldn’t need one. Damien, rocking civilian hair product and the tattoo he just got, a real one, not sausage grease and ballpoint ink. Just…right there. Unbelievable.

The movie itself is about what you expect, if you’ve seen either of the other Paradise Lost films or followed the case, and as such, it’s almost beside the point. I would almost rather have seen the version the filmmakers had nearly in the can before the Alford plea — the ending to the story that WM3 supporters had feared, the end of the line — to see what got changed, and how they shaped a narrative that, essentially, still hadn’t changed at that point. And then I would like to see, in two years’ time, PL 4: Mixed Blessings, and see their lives, their workaday average lives, lizard-brain driving around on errands, dealing with customer-service phone menus and pesty housepets, their bafflement at the whole Twilight thing, just right here alongside the rest of us. The moment when “Anyone else want another beer?” happens without thinking.

Because it isn’t a movie; it’s their lives. I loved going to that showing, getting to sit there with them, in the same row as Devil’s Knot author Mara Leveritt, right in front of defense attorney Don Horgan (Joe R does not mess around with the seat-picking, folks). I loved giving them a standing ovation at the end as they waved from the balcony, all three of them, just right there. My “Free the West Memphis Three” t-shirt is laundered as soft as chenille by now, and I can’t tell you how wonderful to see the Three in street clothes. And how wonderful that a bunch of people got together to right a wrong, and didn’t give up for a very long time. The charismatically weird, and now deeply congenial, John Mark Byers makes a reference in PL3 to something he read “on that internet,” which is a quintessential Byers locution guaranteed to make a 9600-baud veteran like myself chuckle, but rolled a huge boulder up the same hill many many times, and good for them. Twitter had the best info about the news feeds the day of the plea; Mr. Stupidhead and I sat riveted to my laptop during the press conferences. “That internet” can do great things.

But it can’t do everything, and the “Purgatory” in the film’s title still pertains. In response to a question about what went through his mind when sentence was pronounced, Damien — in a tone suggesting tears, or suppressed fury, or both — said that it’s impossible to describe to anyone who hasn’t gone through it, that we could never imagine. This isn’t entirely true; we can imagine. On top of feeling physically uncomfortable (side effects of Damien’s prolonged solitary confinement include arthritis, vitamin deficiencies, and shot eyesight), he’s living with his wife for the first time. He’s learning adult life for the first time. He’s dealing with technologies that have reached their third or fourth generation since he went inside. The pressure of living with a death sentence has lifted, but as a result, now he’s floating, untethered, except perhaps by the weight of the expectations of millions of strangers — bloggers, famous musicians and actors, donors, advocates, all invested in his life and sure of its worth. Maybe he doesn’t feel that those who helped save his life now lay claim to it, but it’s how I’d feel. “Every gift has its price,” my grandmother used to say, and I’d feel that, too.

The movie is playing festivals for a few more weeks, I believe, before it comes to HBO in January, and as a movie, sure, I’d recommend it. It’s still a great story, as painful and maddening and rich as ever. But the credits haven’t rolled on it for the Three; the killer remains at large. The time is gone. I enjoyed welcoming them back, but as happy endings go, this may have neither. Best of luck, friends.




  • Bitts says:

    “invested in his life, and sure of its worth.” EXACTLY, Sars. These guys’ lives are WORTHWHILE, even if all they do with them is sit around and reacquaint themselves with popular culture. They are human, and deserve to be free, and by virtue of only those two things, their lives are worthwhile. I certainly believe it. Everyone who has fought for and followed them all these years (Lo, these MANY years) believes it. I hope they do, too. No expectations, boys. No requirements. Live free.

  • BSD says:

    Glad Natalie Maines wasn’t there. Heh.

  • Maria says:

    I wish I had a million like buttons for Bitts’s comment. No expectations is right. The only expectation we supporters had was that they would all some day walk free. Everything else is gravy.

    Sars, I’m sure there weren’t many dry eyes in the house Monday night. Their freedom is still so surreal to *me*, so I can’t imagine how overwhelming it still is to them, and will be for some time to come.

  • slices says:

    Sars, do you know if the making of a 4th installment is confirmed? I wasn’t sure if it was just “maybe someday” or if indeed the project is already underway. I thought I saw something from one of the filmmakers that was essentially “we’re in if they [WM3] are.” As a longtime follower of the case, I can only imagine what a thrill it was to see the movie physically in the same space as these guys. I still maintain it was one of the fathers. For a long time I thought JM Byers – his appearances in PL 1 and 2 seemed to suggest a wackadoo insanity, bordering on evil simmering under the surface. Coupled with the mysterious death of his wife a few years later, it just didn’t add up. But it seems now that he has evolved somewhat in the past couple of years [???].

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    I didn’t hear anything to suggest it was confirmed, no. I got the sense on the Lopate show that the filmmakers didn’t want to presume.

    I thought the same thing about Byers after the second installment, but as John Douglas (who’s in the 3rd installment, providing a profile of the killers) has noted in his writing, in every case, you have shit that doesn’t add up — weird marks, prints you can’t explain, fibers that don’t belong to anyone — and this is why the phrase is “reasonable doubt,” versus “any doubt.” Byers definitely had some weird shit going on and I’m not about to give him my ATM card to hold, but I don’t think he was involved.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    I wondered while watching the first one, and on and off over the years: Did the killer go to these movies?

    Did he/she feel nervous? Triumphant? Smug? Shamed? Too far in to right so many huge wrongs?

    Has he/she killed him or herself? Does he work at UPS now? Does she have an office job? Has he gotten married? Does she sometimes look at her kids and feel such a pang she has to close her eyes for a minute? Does he get a funny jumpy feeling in his innards when his route takes him past the prison?

    When you “get away” with something like this: how do you live with yourself?

  • Fred J Walsh says:

    I was also there at the NYFF 6:00PM screening on Monday. My own reading of the film and its subjects was very different, however.

    Paradise Lost 3 follows the usual Berlinger & Sinofsky playbook

    1. Continuously show the WM Three in a flattering light
    2. Cast suspicion on a step-father
    3. Profit.

    The three PL films are clearly advocacy pieces, not attempts at any sort of objective journalism.

    For a more objective look at the case, one can turn to the actual court documents available at

    There one can read of Mr. Echols extensive and alarming psychiatric history in the months leading up to the crimes. These are first-hand documents from a few different detention centers and mental health facilities, to which Echols was sent for treatment of suicidal and homicidal impulses — e.g. threatening to stab and eat his father, threatening his girlfriend’s mother — sent by his own parents who feared for his safety, their safety, and the safety of the younger children living with them. There you will see the evidence of Echols’ highly disturbed mental state, one in which he believed the spirit of a dead woman lived within him (“Rosey”) that gave him power, and that he could hear and hold conversation with (i.e. auditory hallucinations). You will read his documented belief in the power of blood drinking, and his sucking the blood of a fellow inmate. Also his belief in witchcraft, and the success he claims with being able to “steal energy” from people. More down-to-earth antisocial trends are also clear, as Echols writes that he “pretty much hates the human race” and announces “I am a sociopath,” responding to a query about a comparison to Ted Bundy and Charles Manson with the response, “I know I am going to influence the world… people will remember me.” Does the psychological profile in itself mean he is guilty? No, but a provides a much more damaging portrait than the film’s depiction of a teen harassed for simply wearing black and listening to Metallica. In my opinion it is the portrait of someone quite capable and quite inclined to commit this type of violent crime against children:

    Speaking more directly to the guilt of the three are the multiple full confessions of Mr. Misskelley, offered after his conviction. In particular the second sworn confession, offered against the repeated advice of his lawyer, clears up the couple of inconsistencies in the first confession and provides what to my eyes is a plausible account of how the three committed these crimes:

    If the judge, the juries, and the appeals courts were correct, and I believe they were, it is my hope that Jessie Misskelley will once again find it in himself to confess to the world. He’s already absented himself from the Q&A’s at both the HBO screening and the NY Film Festival screenings last Monday. Perhaps as time goes on and the media celebration dies down, he will find in the silence the need to tell the truth.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    A few points:

    1) I didn’t find it damning, or even unusual, that Misskelley absented himself from the Q&As. This is a man with an IQ of, what, 70? A fact that the audience has now been told in three feature-length documentaries, which might affect his willingness to take unscripted questions? He didn’t set out to become a public figure. I wouldn’t call that proof of anything.

    1b) You offer no timeline on the second confession; presumably by that time the police had fed him the facts they wanted him to have. A developmental delay doesn’t mean Misskelley can’t have killed someone, but it does make any and all confessions suspect.

    2) Being a pretentious weirdo with chemical imbalances, ditto. It doesn’t excuse or exclude Echols, but I was also a pretentious weirdo with chemical imbalances at that age. Still am, depending on who you ask. He admits to enjoying the attention and behaving poorly during the initial trial as a result; still not causation. He had emotional problems, made self-aggrandizing statements, tried to shock and provoke; still not causation. The bullshitting of an 18-year-old is pretty difficult to take as proof of anything except his or her essential 18-ness, and if the founder of the FBI’s profiling program finds it highly unlikely that Echols was involved, I’m inclined to side with that guy.

    3) Please point me in the direction of any physical evidence tying any of the three to the crime or the crime scene.

    I’ll grant you the doc is not “objective,” but expecting that from a documentary in 2011 is naive at best.

  • Fred J Walsh says:

    As to your first two queries, regarding the timeline of Misskelley’s confessions and further clarification of Echols’ psychiatric history, I’d direct you to the following website which organizes these and other items supportive of their guilt:

    As to physical evidence. Both sides, defense and prosecution, were frustrated by the lack of physical evidence in this case. As you likely know, at the crime scene the bank of the ditch had been slicked down, and the bodies of the victims had all been submerged overnight in a couple feet of ditch water. Additionally the area around the crime scene was walked through over the course of the night by searching family members, friends, and police. These conditions made it difficult to cull forth any definitive physical evidence.

    I believe at trial the prosecution’s offerings of physical evidence resided in some clothing fibers matched to the home of Echols/Baldwin, but not to a high degree of exclusivity. Additionally there was the “lake knife” found behind Baldwin’s house, a type which Echols and Baldwin were seen to have carried, and a type consistent with some of the serated wounds described by the medical examiner. (The defense team’s later experts, studying only photographs and not the actual bodies, would argue that such wounds were “bite marks” and also that “animal predation” had created scratches on the bodies during their time in the ditch, but these arguments go against the original medical examiner’s findings). In any case the knife too could not be definitively tied to Echols/Baldwin with certainty. With regards to that ditch, it should be noted that the bodies were pressed down using large staff-like sticks, not dissimilar to the ones witnesses had seen Echols and Baldwin regularly using as walking sticks/staffs. Misskelley’s confession includes details of Echols/Baldwin beating the children on the head with such sticks, and I believe the medical examiner found some head wounds consistent with that of heavy sticks.

    Regardless, as I understand it, you are right to ask, as many have, about the dearth of physical evidence. However the prosecution’s case against Echols/Baldwin was built around other things: witness accounts placing Echols near the scene in muddy clothing; multiple witness accounts of Echols boasting of the crimes; Echols’ own testimony in which he came off as lying about his whereabouts, i.e. his alibi timeline changed with every question from the prosecutor.

    And with regard to alibis, none of the three could make one stick: Echols’ had changed a few times and was upended in cross-examination; Baldwin’s was also contradicted by witness depositions; Misskelley’s insistence he had been at wrestling did not pan out with the dates his wrestling buddies offered. (What are the odds that three people cannot come up with a single alibi between them that can be successfully corroborated?) In general the jury found Echols to be aloof, arrogant, and deceptive on the stand, and I believe that trend has continued to his recent appearances in the media.

    Regarding your comment that expecting objectivity from a current documentary is naive: well, yes. But it seems there are a large number of viewers who accepted the footage of the Paradise Lost films as the beginning and end of resources available to study this case. I am not one of them.

  • Fred J Walsh says:

    “It’s back, and it’s claiming that the inability to nail down an alibi is dispositive. #overit” – Tomato Nation twitter from last night

    So this is your amazing debate technique: privately discrediting me as subhuman — an “it” — in a message to your twitter followers?

    Ms. Bunting, you claim to be a person of intellectual rigor, and your other writings indicate a capacity for analysis. Why not peruse the actual court documents linked to above: (1) the 500-page psychiatric history of Echols, comprised of actual hospital and detention center records in the months leading up to the crimes, with many statements in Echols’ own handwriting; and (2) the second sworn confession of Jessie Misskelley, made in February of ’94 *after* his conviction and against the advice of lawyers as it would serve no benefit to their client, in which Misskelley twice insists on making the statement implicating himself, Baldwin and Echols “cause I want something done about it”?

    Echols’ Medical Records –
    Misskelley’s 2nd Sworn Confession –

    Heck, all the court documents are available there — including trial transcripts and audio. It’s possible to listen to the actual closing arguments of the prosecution and the defense, in both trials:

    I believe if one approaches these documents with an open mind, away from the heady celebration of the WM3’s support movement, one might come to a very different conclusion regarding their involvement in these crimes.

  • Fred J Walsh says:

    Exhibit 500, the psychological profile of Damien Echols, is notoriously difficult to read online because of the format (jpeg scans) and because some of the documents are poorly photocopied or contain illegible handwriting.

    However, the document has just been very well summarized at

    I urge you to read this portrait of the teenaged Echols in 1992-1993 and ask yourself again whether he could have participated in the crimes.

    (Again, I have no personal affiliation with this website, but do visit often to research the case or engage in the comments sections.)

  • Darin E. says:

    Fred, Thank You so much for following the WM3 all these years and providing the truth against this Hollywood hype that got them out of prison. Echols has all the traits of a repeat offender and I won’t be surprised if he kills again. It has been a long time since he killed those boys, he must be itchy to do it again.

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