The question facing Damien Echols is: Can fame affect the outcome?
Echols sits on Arkansas's Death Row. He and two other boys from West Memphis, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, both serving life terms, are the subjects of "Paradise Lost," a documentary film that has been attracting critical acclaim since it began opening in theaters last month.
Between now and December, the film, with music contributed by Metallica, will be seen at some 200 U.S. theaters. Using extensive trial footage, it chronicles the convictions of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, who were accused of slaying three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis. The trials themselves--there were two--unfold between compelling vignettes of almost everyone involved in the case: the accused and their families, members of the victims' families, the lawyers, and even the judge. As it turns out, the best decision Judge David Burnett made regarding the trials may have been to allow them to be recorded. Thanks to the release of this film, the trials may get the scrutiny they deserve.
West Memphis will be scrutinized too. It's image in the film is not a flattering one. For many viewers, the city emerges as a small southern town where three boys could be convicted of three murders on hardly any evidence at all, amid an atmosphere steeped in religion, fear, and inexplicable mutterings about Satanism. Reviewers have described West Memphis as a place where a little nonconformity can get a person convicted of murder.
The directors of "Paradise Lost" are among the best in the business, and the film is expected to win several awards. "Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky got robbed when their brilliant 'Brother's Keeper' didn't even get a Best Documentary Oscar nomination," a reviewer for the Boston Phoenix wrote. "If they are similarly snubbed for their HBO-produced 'Paradise Lost,' it will be a miscarriage of justice on the scale of the story the film relates."
Siskel and Ebert gave "Paradise Lost" their two thumbs up and predicted it will be one of their top 10 picks for the year. They agreed the film "develops all of the energy and drama of a great court case and a social document."
"'Paradise Lost' runs two-and-a-half hours," Siskel said. "I easily could have watched another hour--another two hours--of this material. It's that strong and sad and outrageous."
"Oh, it is a great film, Gene," Ebert agreed, "and one of the things it points out is the need, the real need to create the idea of Satanic rituals in order to explain crimes, because it's not enough that there could be a sick deviate out there who would kill these boys.
"And then the evidence that builds up: There was no blood at the murder site--eight pints of blood disappeared. The kids are too small to have carried the bodies there. The mutilations couldn't have taken place, apparently--at least, a doctor says--at night, underwater, in the dark. The murders apparently took place someplace else, and there is compelling evidence that these three kids didn't do it But everybody in the town and in the courtroom and on the jury are all blinded by their fantasies about Satanic cults, and they can't listen to reason."
Release of the film has prompted dozens of articles examining the case in newspapers across the country, causing several reporters to become familiar with its many oddities. The headlines speak for themselves. "Gripping 'Paradise Lost' exposes murder trial, town," the Boston Globe reported. "Three young boys are found murdered in small-town Arkansas," runs a headline in Details magazine, "and three local metalheads are found guilty."
And here's the spin from Spin: "Echols is the town Gothic-rockhead and Baldwin is his sidekick," wrote Michael Atkinson. "Their only alibi is each other, and a trial of almost medieval ignorance ensues." Atkinson isn't too taken with the footage of Echols, whom he describes as "so repellent, vain, and resigned to doom he carries the odor of the terminally twisted." But he's scathing in his take on West Memphis.
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