When Joe Berlinger and his filmmaker partner Bruce Sinofsky set out to document the case of Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols; the trio convicted of murdering three young boys in Arkansas back in 1993, they never expected it would take nearly 20 years and three films to tell the story. The men, who became known as the West Memphis Three, were only teenagers when they were tried and they always claimed their innocence. The evidence never proved they were involved in the crimes either, yet Misskelley and Baldwin got life sentences plus 20 years each, and Echols was sentenced to death.
Berlinger and Sinofsky’s films brought mass attention to the case and got the men support from the likes of Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, as well as a dedicated group of individuals who worked hard to help get them free. It all finally paid off on August 19, 2011 when Misskelley, Baldwin, and Echols entered Alford pleas; a plea that allows them to say they are innocent but that they understand there’s enough evidence to convict them. It’s not a perfect solution as it does not clear their names, but they were all released, and Echols was saved from death row.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory recaps everything surrounding the case leading up to the release of the men. We spoke with Berlinger about the journey to get to this point. Read our Q&A below.
When you set out to make the first Paradise Lost film did you ever imagine you would still be telling this story almost 20 years later?
No. Initially HBO sent us over an article from the New York Times that said these three, blood-drinking, devil-worshipping teens were guilty of these horrible murders. They had just been arrested. We went down without any noble instincts of advocacy or championing of these guys. We went down in June of 1993, nine months before the trial, thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers. About three months into the process, after we did our first series of interviews with them, it just didn’t feel right that they were guilty and we thought it would all work itself out at the trial. We never dreamed there would be such a gross miscarriage of justice. We went to make a film about bad guys and to have that turn around so profoundly and then for it to continue for two decades was nothing we could have imagined. As we started questioning the case we thought it would all come out in the trial and they would be acquitted and we’d have a film about the wrong guys being arrested and finally released.
Are you happy with the way they were finally released?
Does anyone really believe that if the state of Arkansas really thought Damien Echols was a satanic, devil-worshipping, baby killer… does anyone really think the state of Arkansas would release people if they truly believed in their hearts they were guilty of the crime? They are going for political cover and avoiding any kind of accountability by doing the Alford plea. And if they do think these guys are guilty and they let them out after 18 years, then shame on them for bowing to the pressures of Hollywood and outside celebrities.
Do you think your films helped them get to where they are today or do you think it slowed down the process because of the pushback from some of the people involved in the case?
I don’t see how the films could have slowed down the process. Damien Echols would literally be dead if it wasn’t for the films. He had run out of his appeals and was on death row as an unknown person without any help. He would not have had the wherewithal or finances to pursue one final appeal, which was his DNA appeal, which is what he was allowed to pursue in 2001. And it’s a very costly appeal and if it wasn’t for the support and notoriety of the case, he himself has said he would have been executed long ago. I think the films have only been helpful in drawing attention to the case. Arkansas had to go through every step of the appeals process knowing that the world was watching. I clearly think the films were the catalyst of the worldwide support and the worldwide support, combined with the films, ultimately got these guys out of prison. Under imperfect conditions of course.
When you started filming they were just kids. Was it ever hard for you to detach yourself from them in order to do other projects, such as the Metallica documentary you made?
When you make these kinds of films you have to detach yourself to a certain degree. You can’t become so emotionally invested in your subjects that you don’t have your own life. In fact, I’ve always felt like you can’t even be friends with your subjects because that would tarnish the journalism and you don’t want to be accused of being unobjective. On the other hand… the overriding emotion that drove the second and third film was guilt. When we saw those guys get handcuffed and led away during the first film, Bruce and I vowed to keep making films to shine a light on it until there was a resolution. We were devastated to see those guys get led off for a crime we were convinced they didn’t do. I couldn’t help but measure the progress in my own life against those guys being locked up and frozen in time. I had my first child during the making of the first film and my second child during the making of the second film, and I would measure the positive progress in my life. Every time my kid took a new step forward, first time they spoke, first time they walked, elementary school, high school, whatever, I would literally think of these guys rotting in prison and it made me want to stick with the case. Keep telling the story to keep it alive.
Did the pushback from some of the victims families ever wear you down?
Most of the victims families have come to believe the West Memphis Three are innocent. Obviously Todd Moore and his ex-wife still believe that the guys are guilty and that we’re terrible people. That was hard to go through and still is. I have nothing but sympathy for them even though they criticized us and they wrote a letter to the Academy Awards asking that the film be disqualified from the nomination. It was painful. I understand where they’re coming from, as a parent I can’t imagine losing a child, particularly in that way. I think the healing process is predicated on knowing who did it and having closure and this case has not let them have closure. I think they need to look into this case instead of listening to rhetoric. I think if they walked in with an open mind they would see what we all see and come to that conclusion. But for whatever reason they have chosen to continue to believe the prosecutions story. When you’re sitting in the editing room and the truth is leaping out at you you have to tell the story you feel is the truth.
Do you think they’ll ever find the real killer or killers?
Eighteen years have gone by and the police investigation was so bungled that a lot of the evidence has been lost or destroyed. I feel this will continue to be a cold case. What’s so outrageous about the Alford plea is that basically the state of Arkansas is saying ‘we are not going to find the real killer’ and in order for the West Memphis Three to clear their names they are putting the burden of proof on them to clear their names by finding the real killer. That’s the only way this Alford plea will be commuted.
For you personally, what has been the hardest part of making these films?
I think just sticking with the story. It’s not like the Star Trek series or Lord of the Rings, where you want to make a sequel. We had no desire to continue making films [on this matter] from a filmmaking standpoint. In fact I would say the second film is really flawed because it’s advocacy in search of a story. There was not a strong story because the appeals process is a lot of paperwork filing and it’s not terribly dramatic. So just sticking with something against all odds and seeing how flawed the legal system can be and trying to make a difference over such a long period of time. It was hard to stick to it and have the commitment to want to keep telling the story.
Do you think you’ll ever revisit the story again?
Never. We’re done [laughs]. The West Memphis mythos has gotten way bigger than us and is out of our control. Not that we ever wanted to control it, but Damien has a book coming out and there’s The Devil Knot movie. Peter Jackson has a documentary coming out. Bruce and I pledged to make films until they got out of prison. I was 31 when we started and I’m 50 now. Three is a good number and it’s time for me to move on. As an advocate for their innocence I will certainly stay involved in the case and do what I can to get the Alford plea turned into a full pardon. But as a filmmaker I think our job is done.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing a film with David Blaine, the magician, over the next couple of years. What the subject is I can’t tell you.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is now available on DVD and iTunes. Check out the trailer below.
Top image: Bruce Sinofsky, Damien Echols, and Joe Berlinger. Courtesy eOne Films.