Jason Baldwin had no idea what was happening when a fellow inmate at the supermax prison in Varner, Arkansas, woke him up early one morning in 1997.
Baldwin, the youngest member of the trio that had come to be known as the West Memphis Three, was serving a life sentence after being convicted on charges connected to the 1993 killings of three 8-year-old boys. He had always maintained he didn’t commit the crimes, and outside the Varner Unit’s walls, a growing chorus of activists and legal observers were arguing that same thing on his behalf. But inside, he was just another prisoner—Baldwin didn’t know who he could trust. That included Mojo, who came calling around 2 a.m. that day trying to coax him out of his cell.
“My first thought is, ‘I hope this dude isn’t trying to pull me into some type of escape,’” Baldwin says nearly a quarter-century later.
Mojo had a different idea of what might get the man he affectionately called “J.B.” out of prison. With the guards’ blessings, Mojo led Baldwin to Varner’s visitation room, where everything had been put away aside from two chairs set up in front of a cart holding a small TV and a VCR. Baldwin remembers grabbing a Mountain Dew and a burrito and sitting down, still unaware of what he was about to watch.
For the next two hours and 29 minutes, the two inmates sat in near silence watching Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the landmark documentary released on HBO 25 years ago this week that captured the trials of Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Damien Echols, the three teenagers convicted in 1994 of the crimes that ripped through the small, working-class community of West Memphis, Arkansas. As the first in a trilogy of Paradise Lost films about the case, the 1996 movie was a stunning example of cinéma vérité, as directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky embedded themselves with the prosecution, the defense, and the families of both the slain and the accused to put human faces on a heart-wrenching tragedy, as well as highlight the overblown worries of satanic rituals and murderous cults that proliferated throughout the 1980s and ’90s. A spiritual successor to Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, and a forerunner of more recent documentaries like Making a Murderer, the film stands today as the most affecting examination of one of the most studied legal cases in U.S. history—one that put heavy metal lyrics and black T-shirts on trial and helped lay the groundwork for the current thinking around false confessions. Paradise Lost also led to a famous citizen-activist campaign championing the release of the three teens that caught on at the dawn of the Internet Age and would eventually pull in Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and a who’s who of the rich and famous.
But on that early morning in 1997, Jason Baldwin wasn’t concerned with Berlinger and Sinofsky’s craft, or legal precedent, or crusading celebrities. He was just taking in the enormity of the defining event of his life to that point, which had been committed to film and was now playing for him inside the cavernous, auditorium-style visitation room. “It was so emotionally taxing to watch and go through it again,” he says. “But I had to. I couldn’t not watch it at this point. I’m seeing the things I experienced, but not through my own point of view. It was almost like an out-of-body experience.”
When the credits rolled shortly after the unforgettable final scene, which shows a now-convicted Baldwin and Echols leaving the courtroom in handcuffs and entering a police cruiser as Metallica plays, Baldwin sat stunned. Mojo, however, was considerably more fired up, believing the same thing many of Paradise Lost’s viewers did: that the movie showed an incredible miscarriage of justice, one that would surely be fixed. “Mojo jumped up,” Baldwin recalls. “He said, ‘J.B., you’re going home, man, you’re going home.’”
Mojo was right. He just didn’t know it would take another 14 years to happen.
The great irony of the 18-year quest to free the West Memphis Three is that it didn’t begin as a crusade. In fact, for the better part of 1993, it was nearly impossible to find anyone who believed they were innocent. In May of that year, police discovered the bodies of Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers in the Robin Hood Hills, a small wooded area near the I-40/I-55 exchange. A month later, authorities arrested Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley—three teenagers who lived in trailer parks near West Memphis and had previous run-ins with the law, though nothing rising to the level of murder. While police had focused on Echols and Baldwin in the intervening weeks because of their reputation, the arrests came largely because of a confession by Misskelley, which was leaked to the largest newspaper in the area, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and ran under the banner headline “Teen describes ‘cult’ torture of boys.” At a press conference shortly after the arrests, the lead investigator was asked how confident he felt about the case on a scale of 1-10. He responded proudly, “11.”
The “cult” part of the Commercial Appeal’s headline signaled how the case would be defined by both the media and prosecutors. The killings came at the peak of the so-called “Satanic Panic,” a time of heightened worries about ritualistic abuse. In 1994, the FBI said there was scant evidence that violent satanic crimes had ever occurred in America outside of a few isolated incidents, but that was long after TV hosts like Geraldo, Sally Jessy Raphael, and Oprah had spread moral hysteria about musicians weaving supposedly anti-Christian and occult messages into their songs, and long after wrongful convictions were handed down in the infamous McMartin Preschool sexual assault trials. To authorities working in West Memphis—a largely Southern Baptist community—satanic activity seemed to be the most likely cause for the killings, in part because the boys’ bodies were bound and appeared to have been mutilated. And without substantial physical evidence, police zeroed in on a pair of teens they knew well: Echols, a self-professed Wiccan who wore all black and read Stephen King, and his best friend Baldwin, who was considered an outsider because of his love of drawing and bands like Metallica.
The idea of killer teens in the Christian South, not any greater sense of purpose, was mainly what intrigued Sheila Nevins, then the head of HBO’s documentary division, when she spotted a story about the case on the inside pages of The New York Times. “I had a friend who was working on 20/20, and they had done a film about exorcism in one of the magazine pieces,” Nevins says. “She said it was one of the highest-rated pieces they had. So when I saw this tiny little article in the Times, I wasn’t about to free anybody that was guilty. … I said, ‘I’m going to send some kids down there.’”
Those “kids” turned out to be Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the young documentarians who had recently completed the acclaimed Brother’s Keeper, a film chronicling a death and the resulting trial in a small upstate New York village. When the pair got the call from Nevins, they mobilized immediately, landing in Arkansas shortly after the arrests. The idea, Berlinger says, was to tell a story of disaffected youth—about “kids killing kids.”
“There was no reason not to believe the press,” Berlinger says. “At that time, I was a little naive that what you read in the paper must have some truth to it, and all the press reports coming out of Arkansas were saying that this was like a slam dunk, an open-and-shut case with a confession that was printed in the newspaper.”
By getting to the story quickly, the directors were able to document the post-arrest period and two trials that followed in painstaking detail. The footage included raw jailhouse interviews with the defendants, strategy sessions held by legal teams on both sides, and extended monologues from Mark Byers, the tall, goateed stepfather of one of the victims, who spoke as though he were reciting the Book of Revelation and who, at one point in Paradise Lost, fired a handgun at a pumpkin while reciting the names of the accused.
Berlinger and Sinofsky, the latter of whom died in 2015 at age 58, were able to gain incredible and immediate access to seemingly everyone the case had touched: the families of the victims and the accused, the judge, the lead investigator, members of the community. Berlinger says that after months of filming, the parents of one of the victims raised the issue of payment. That November, he says, HBO agreed to give an honorarium—roughly $5,000—to the families on both sides.
According to Dan Stidham, the attorney for Misskelley, that money became essential for the cash-strapped defense teams, who needed to pay for expert witnesses and other expenses. Baldwin, who had been coached by his lawyers to avoid speaking to the press, says money was the only reason he agreed to the added pressure of appearing in the documentary, especially when everyone else in a position of authority seemed adversarial toward him. Quickly, however, he realized Berlinger and Sinofsky were taking a different approach.
“Everybody I’d come in contact with was hostile to the truth,” Baldwin says. “Here were these guys—at best they were neutral. They weren’t telling me I was lying, even if they may have been saying that in their minds. I don’t know if they were questioning it, but they weren’t mistreating me and telling me that what I was telling them wasn’t true.”
While Berlinger admits that he and Sinofsky may have tilted “pro-prosecution” in the early days of filming, that quickly changed after witnessing how the cases came together and spending time with the three teens during pretrial jailhouse interviews—particularly Baldwin, who Berlinger describes as “sweet” and “studious.”
The evolution of how the teens were perceived—on behalf of both the filmmakers and even part of the defense team—is captured on camera early as Stidham and his colleagues began to consider whether Misskelley’s confession had been coerced. Stidham, who was just 30 years old and not long out of law school when the court appointed him to be Misskelley’s attorney, went in thinking he would negotiate a deal for his client, who had told police that his acquaintances Baldwin and Echols committed the crimes and that he was present and played a role as an accessory. But the lawyer quickly noticed inconsistencies in Misskelley’s purported confession. Misskelley, who reportedly had an IQ of 72, changed his story several times, and only a small part of his statements was recorded. There also were issues with other details he provided, including how the victims were bound and whether the boys were raped. (Despite Misskelley’s statement, the coroner’s examination found no injuries on the victims consistent with sexual assault.) But most notably, his initial timeline of events didn’t match what was known about the crimes, and every time he offered a detail that diverged from the accepted chronology, the interrogating officers seemed to steer him back in the direction of the official version. Misskelley initially told police that the killings happened during the day; knowing that they actually occurred some time after dusk, the officers corrected him, helping him retrofit his story to the case’s few known facts.
The Paradise Lost cameras captured not only the defense’s discussions, but the full testimony, in Misskelley’s trial, of an expert on coerced confessions. That was more than the people deciding the case were able to hear—the presiding judge made the expert give most of his testimony without the jury in the courtroom because he questioned its relevance. In the joint trial of Baldwin and Echols, which took place separately from Misskelley’s, Berlinger and Sinofsky filmed the surreal moments that juries were actually present for: a rundown of the books Echols checked out of the library, a parade of band T-shirts worn by the pair, a copy of a Blue Oyster Cult record found in Damien’s girlfriend’s house that became evidence because of the word “cult” and song titles like “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” What the cameras couldn’t capture, however, was the introduction of physical evidence—the prosecution didn’t offer much of that aside from a knife that was never directly linked to the crimes and fabric threads deemed “microscopically similar” to items found in Baldwin’s and Echols’s homes, an assertion that has been questioned in the years since the trials. The prosecutor would later say, “There was a lack of physical evidence to tie anyone or anything to the crime scene,” while the lead investigator—the same one who told the press the case was an “11” out of 10—would concede, “You’ve got a lot of circumstantial evidence is what you’ve got. There’s no smoking gun. This is not a smoking-gun-type case.”
The attorneys representing Echols and Baldwin believed that the juries wouldn’t accept the prosecution’s versions of events—that they were too fantastical and tied to second-hand information—and that without conclusive proof, their clients would walk. Baldwin’s attorneys even avoided putting him on the witness stand or mounting much of a defense, believing the burden was on the state. But then the verdicts arrived: Both Baldwin and Echols were found guilty on all counts, just like Misskelley had been six weeks before them.
Even without a smoking gun, the circumstantial evidence was enough for a conviction in a place like Crittenden County, Arkansas. West Memphis is in the heart of the Bible Belt: just a two-hour drive from where, legend has it, the devil tuned Robert Johnson’s guitar, in a state that’s 46 percent evangelical Protestant. The specter of the church looms over Paradise Lost, best represented by an early scene in which Mark Byers leads his congregation in prayer and song. Mara Leveritt, a journalist who followed the case throughout the 1990s and wrote the 2002 book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, calls the strain of Christianity that runs through the region “very literal” and says that even her children faced harassment as teenagers for playing Dungeons & Dragons and listening to Ozzy Osbourne. It’s no surprise the juries found the prosecution’s narrative compelling, Leveritt says: For them, the image of killer satanists headbanging to Metallica was more than plausible.
“I spoke with one of the jurors, years later after the trials and convictions, and he said he had no doubt that people could throw their lot in with the devil and be commanded to do things that they wouldn’t have done otherwise—that they have basically made the deal with the devil,” Leveritt says.
The final scene Berlinger and Sinofsky filmed may have been the piece that stuck with viewers the most: the image of Baldwin and Echols being led out of the courthouse in handcuffs and bulletproof vests, now property of the state. Like Misskelley in the first trial, Baldwin received a life sentence. Echols, who prosecutors argued was the ringleader, was sentenced to death. Paradise Lost is a narration-free documentary filmed with a journalistic remove. But its closing moments point to how the filmmakers felt: that a horrific tragedy had just been compounded by a monumental miscarriage of justice. “We were mainly in it for the aesthetics of filmmaking, but the last scene of Paradise Lost, when Damien is chained up and sent away to death row, that was just heartbreaking and devastating for us,” Berlinger says.
After roughly 18 months of editing, Paradise Lost debuted at Sundance in January 1996 before heading out to other festivals. Wherever it was screened, Berlinger says, it was followed by intense Q&As from audience members who couldn’t believe what they’d just watched. Critics were effusive in their praise and stunned by the footage—particularly Roger Ebert, who wrote in a four-star review that “at the end of the film I was unconvinced of their guilt.” The film won Emmy and Peabody awards to go with more than a dozen other nominations. It was clear that Paradise Lost was resonating. But it wasn’t in the ways its directors had hoped.
Berlinger says that he counts Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line as one of his greatest influences, not just for the innovations Morris brought to the documentary genre, but also because it helped free Randall Dale Adams from a sentence for the murder of a Texas police officer that he did not commit. Berlinger and Sinofsky expected a similar result to come quickly in the West Memphis Three case. When it didn’t, the praise heaped on Paradise Lost felt hollow. “Getting that kind of creative validation was exciting, but we were also extremely frustrated that it didn’t move from the entertainment page of the newspaper to the editorial page,” Berlinger says. “Nobody was saying, ‘This is an outrageous case that needs to be looked into.’”
Well, perhaps not nobody. Beyond the black-and-white print of the newspaper, there was a movement brewing. It just needed a catalyst.
One of Kathy Bakken’s earliest jobs in Los Angeles allowed her a certain kind of cultural currency: She designed movie posters for an entertainment-advertising company, which meant she got to see films months before they were released. In 1996, a screener for Paradise Lost passed her desk. By the time she got done watching it, her life was forever changed.
Bakken immediately showed her friends Burk Sauls and Grove Pashley, who were both equally gripped by what they had just watched. The story felt personal for all of them, but especially Sauls: He had grown up in Florida and Georgia as an outcast obsessed with art and reading some of the same books Damien Echols had. “I went to a Baptist school and I got accused of being a devil worshiper because I was trying to learn how to write hieroglyphics,” says Sauls, today a screenwriter and VFX designer. It wasn’t hard for him to imagine his teenage self ending up in Echols’s situation.
The trio assumed that the convictions had already been overturned by the time Bakken received the screener—this was a modern-day witch hunt, they thought, and surely the state of Arkansas had already corrected the course. Except this was 1996, and home internet was still in its infancy. When they searched online, they found little to no information about the case. “By the end of Paradise Lost, you can’t believe they were found guilty,” Bakken says. “You still don’t really know what happened to these kids. So the minute you’re done, you just want to know more. Then you’d try to find it, and it didn’t exist, because when we went out to discussion groups, no one knew about the case yet.”
After learning that the teens were still in prison, Bakken, Sauls, and Pashley decided to make full use of the budding technological revolution. They procured the domain WM3.org and made a website, updating it with whatever information they could track down. Eventually, they began traveling to Arkansas—about 35 trips in total, always on their own dime, Bakken and Sauls say—to collect case documents, which they scanned and uploaded to the site, also transcribing the documents so that the text could be searchable. They began attending appeal hearings and visiting Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley in prison. They even hired experts to examine the case, including a forensic criminal profiler who discovered what appeared to be bite marks on one of the victims that didn’t match any of the convicted. None of the initial trio behind WM3.org—nor their friend Lisa Fancher, who later became a key part of the effort—had ever considered themselves an activist to that point. But they weren’t just voices in the growing choir calling for the West Memphis Three’s release—they were leading the movement. And the seemingly endless stream of threats against them and the frequent clashes with Mark Byers did nothing to dissuade them. “People would drive by and yell at us, ‘They’re going to burn in hell,’” Sauls says. “But we stuck with it, and every so often something would happen, and little by little, people would come around.”
They spread word about the website through online discussion groups and by hanging flyers in the art houses that screened Paradise Lost, and by 2000, WM3.org was getting 4,000 to 8,000 hits a day. (At one point, Sauls says, it landed on Yahoo’s list of the top 100 websites.) Social media didn’t fully exist yet, but the group managed to harness the potential of the nascent information superhighway to bring attention to their cause. And they used that visibility to help raise funds for the defense. Support came from unlikely corners: a classroom of kids who held a cookie sale that raised $30, local bands in Chicago who held a benefit show and sent $150. “They weren’t connected in any direct way,” Bakken says. “They saw the same thing you did. They saw this movie and they felt like, ‘I have to do something.’”
Berlinger and Sinofsky began to take notice. As the appeals processes stretched across several years and the buzz of the initial film faded, the directors began looking for ways to keep the story alive. Their main worry was Damien, who was staring down the threat of lethal injection should the appeals fail. Filming the activists’ work seemed like the best place for Berlinger and Sinofsky to turn their attention; what better way to show the continued plight of the West Memphis Three than to show regular people dedicating their free time to fighting for them? That story line would make up the bulk of 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, a rare sequel for a documentary, especially before the streaming era proved that true crime series like Making a Murderer and The Staircase could maintain audience interest for years.
Today, Berlinger calls Revelations the weakest of the three films in the trilogy—“advocacy in search of a story” as opposed to the in-the-moment, on-the-ground approach of the first Paradise Lost and the in-depth exploration of new evidence in 2011’s Purgatory. Berlinger also concedes Revelations had some ethical problems, chiefly because it raised the possibility that Mark Byers committed the killings. (Police questioned Byers several times during the investigation, but never considered him a suspect.) But Berlinger also believes that the sequel is important for documenting the power of citizen activism. “It was born out of genuine admiration for the fact that these guys took the time out of their lives to dedicate, to go down to Arkansas, to build a website, to really step out of their lives,” Berlinger says. “I deeply admire that and I thought it was worthy of putting on film.”
The idea of the average citizen becoming embroiled in a criminal investigation isn’t far-fetched in 2021, decades removed from the launch of WM3.org. Websleuths, an online forum for discussions about unsolved homicides and missing-person cases, has more than 100,000 members, and internet vigilantes have used social media and other online breadcrumbs to help track down actual criminals, such as the Canadian murderer and subject of the documentary Don’t F*ck With Cats, Luka Magnotta. There have also been several high-profile incidents of laypeople reinvestigating decades-old cold cases in more rigorous, journalistic ways and helping bring them to a resolution. Michelle McNamara helped crack the Golden State Killer case by poring over thousands of pages of case files while working on her book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was published two years after her 2016 death, while Chris Lambert and his podcast Your Own Backyard were highlighted by authorities after two arrests in April in connection with the 1996 disappearance of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart.
But for every Your Own Backyard or I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that has applied journalistic rigor to their research in the past two decades, there’s an Up and Vanished, which has been at the center of ethical debates since the podcast debuted in 2016. Its first season ostensibly focused on the disappearance of a Georgia beauty queen, but it spent nearly as much time digging through the salacious details of the victim’s love life and dipping into amateur psychology as it did looking at evidence. Creator Payne Lindsey, a filmmaker with no previous experience investigating crimes, had no connection to the victim before he discovered her while Googling cold cases in hopes of finding his own version of runaway successes like Serial and Making a Murderer. He’s since parlayed the popularity of the show into a booming podcast network and documentary deal with Oxygen. (It’s worth noting that despite the issues raised by Lindsey’s work, the first season of Up and Vanished renewed interest in the case, which ultimately led to arrests, albeit of people that Lindsey hadn’t previously covered on the podcast.)
The concept of citizen investigations intrigues Berlinger just as much as it did in the 1990s, though today he’s often more concerned with the moral implications. In February, Netflix released Berlinger’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, a docuseries that looked at the 2013 death of Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who died while vacationing in Los Angeles. Much of Cecil Hotel focuses on the amateur investigators who turned coincidences into conspiracy theories, ultimately accusing an innocent person of her death. The consequences of that online campaign were ruinous: The person they targeted, a Mexican metal musician who worked under the name Morbid, was harassed into hiding. Even today, years after his name was cleared and authorities ruled Lam’s death accidental, Morbid still receives threats.
“Armchair detectives of today, I think a lot of them dabble in conspiracy theory,” Berlinger says. “The whole point of the web sleuths presented in the Cecil Hotel is that you cannot assume something is truthful just because circumstantially it seems interesting. You need corroborating evidence.”
Berlinger contrasts this with the approach taken by Bakken, Sauls, and Co., who considered the truth “sacrosanct” and avoided rumor and innuendo in part because similar speculation helped convict the West Memphis Three. Bakken and Sauls say they tried to avoid offering theories about the case publicly, opting instead to try to work through official channels. Like everyone else who was familiar with the case, they wanted to know who committed the crimes, but their main goal was advocacy, not using the opportunity to play investigators.
“We made a promise early on that we would never pretend to be law enforcement or detectives,” Sauls says. “I think we were the first internet sleuths, but we were not internet sleuths.”
The IMDb credits page for the first Paradise Lost is modest, but impressive. It’s headlined by not only the film’s directors, but also Sheila Nevins, its executive producer and winner of 32 individual Emmy awards, more than any other person in history. Further down, it includes names such as Rick Dior, a sound mixer who worked on Apollo 13 and Dirty Dancing, and Bob Richman, a three-time Emmy-nominated cinematographer whose résumé also includes renowned docs like An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman. But further down, in the section for the music department, there’s a curious inclusion of a consultant who never worked in film again: Alex Sinofsky, the son of Bruce who was 12 at the time of Paradise Lost’s release.
The reason for the credit gets less curious when he’s asked about it: He was a huge Metallica fan.
“When we were driving in the car a lot, we’d play a lot of the Metallica album Master of Puppets,” says Alex Sinofsky, who became a doctor instead of getting behind the camera himself. “I think I introduced my dad to it because that was not his normal genre.”
Three Metallica songs—“Orion,” “Welcome Home (Sanitarium),” and “Call of Ktulu”—would play throughout the documentary. Sinofsky family connection aside, Berlinger says this was an important part of the film: The prosecutors had put heavy metal lyrics and Baldwin’s and Echols’s Metallica fandom on trial as much as the teens themselves. Metallica had never licensed a song for a film before, but when they learned about the case, Berlinger says, they made an exception. “They couldn’t have been cooler,” recalls Berlinger, who would go on to direct the 2004 documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster alongside Bruce Sinofsky. “They asked to see a cut, and they immediately said, ‘Not only are we going to let you use all that music, but we’re not going to charge you anything for it.’”
Metallica would be the first celebrities to throw their support behind the West Memphis Three, but they were far from the last. As more people learned about the case from Paradise Lost and the work of people like Bakken and Sauls, the phrase “Free the West Memphis Three” caught on as a slogan for progressive musicians and actors in the 1990s, up there with “Save the Rainforest” and “Free Tibet.” Eddie Vedder became an early leading voice, soon followed by the likes of Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp, and Natalie Maines from the band then known as the Dixie Chicks. (Maines briefly became a part of the story when Terry Hobbs, stepfather of another of the victims, sued her for defamation after she wrote a blog post pointing out that physical evidence at the crime scene potentially pointed at him and not the three convicted for the crime. Maines won the lawsuit; police have never named Hobbs a suspect or charged him in connection with the killings.)
As the 20th century turned to the 21st, the movement seemed to be picking up steam. A benefit album was released in 2000, and the phrase made it into a Dawson’s Creek episode when Pacey shouted “Free the West Memphis Three” over an airport intercom. The cause’s most high-profile moment came in 2000, when Trey Parker said the slogan at the MTV Movie Awards while collecting an award for Best Musical Sequence.
Few celebrities at the time did as much as Henry Rollins, however. Sauls says that the former Black Flag frontman was one of the few big names who dug deep into the evidence, wanting to learn as many details as he could about the case. Rollins not only gave interviews to keep the effort alive in the press, he organized a string of benefit shows and released an album featuring Iggy Pop and Chuck D, with proceeds going to the defense. For Rollins, it was a moral imperative: “I’d find myself up at 3:30 a.m. thinking about Damien. He could have been me,” he told Rolling Stone in 2011. In an email to The Ringer, Rollins stressed that “inaction was not an option.”
“Myself and the many people I worked with did what we could to help bring attention to the case and generate much needed financial aid,” he wrote. “The sheer mountain moving amount of money it cost to prove the obvious innocence of Jessie, Jason, and Damien still staggers me. The level of corruption in the American justice system is glaring and sickening.”
While Berlinger says that the work of people like Bakken and Sauls was more impressive than that of any celebrity, it’s undeniable that the famous and influential brought a megaphone and funding mechanism to this case that most never get. By 2005, Rollins himself had raised $100,000 for the cause. Peter Jackson, who would produce a separate documentary about the case titled West of Memphis in 2012, and his partner, Fran Walsh, funded an extensive private investigation and helped hire forensic experts to comb through evidence. And then there was the public pressure: In August 2010, Vedder and Maines headlined yet another benefit concert, this one in Little Rock. More than 2,500 people attended and the story dominated the local press for days.
All of those factors combined to create a tipping point, says Leveritt. “Once there got to be this global pressure, and there was a big concert here with really big-name musicians within a mile of our Supreme Court building, things started suddenly to change,” she says.
In August 2011, Jason Baldwin was pulled from his prison cell under confusing circumstances once again. He had been expecting a visitation, but was instead led to the prison chapel office, where inmates were typically brought only if someone close to them had died. He was handed the phone. It was a call about Damien Echols—he wasn’t dead, but his wife, Lorri Davis, feared he might be soon. Years of solitary confinement and the abuse he said he suffered at the hands of prison guards had taken its toll. Baldwin remembers the dire circumstances laid out during the call. “They didn’t even think he would physically survive through December,” Baldwin says.
The news was devastating beyond just word of his friend’s suffering. So much progress had been made in the fight for new trials, most notably a November 2010 Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that ordered a hearing on new DNA analysis and other evidence not considered in 1994. Additionally, the judge in the original trials—who under Arkansas law presided under the requests for retrials in the years following the convictions—had been elected to the state Senate that December, meaning someone new and possibly more sympathetic would oversee the case. It had been a long fight to clear their names, and the odds seemed better than ever. But Echols’s situation changed Baldwin’s thinking. Now, he was being asked to consider something that he never dreamed he would: accepting a plea deal that would set the West Memphis Three free, but require them to give up their quest for exoneration. “We were finally winning,” he says. “I didn’t want to stop with us being that close. But they were saying that he was about to die.”
The Alford plea is a seldom-invoked and somewhat confusing legal maneuver, but the basics are fairly straightforward. Essentially, it allows the accused to assert their innocence while pleading guilty, conceding that the prosecution has an overwhelming amount of evidence to procure a conviction. None of the three believed that, but Echols’s health—and the possibility that even if he survived, he would still be on death row should the fight for retrials fail—made it an imperative. On August 19, 2011, all three accepted the deal and were immediately released from prison. Misskelley and Echols were 36; Baldwin was 34. As part of the deal, they cannot file wrongful-conviction lawsuits, which both Berlinger and Baldwin say could’ve cost the state tens of millions of dollars.
Not everyone believes that the West Memphis Three are innocent of the killings of Michael Moore, Stevie Branch, and Christopher Byers. The district’s current prosecuting attorney, Keith Chrestman, did not respond to requests for comment for this article, but his predecessor Scott Ellington, whose office negotiated the deals, told The New York Times in 2011 that while new trials would have likely resulted in acquittals, “We don’t think that there is anybody else.” The Moore family has been outspoken about the end result, vehemently protesting the 2012 Oscar nomination for the third Paradise Lost installment. But the list of people who have looked at the facts of the case and come away believing Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley are innocent is long. It ranges from Mark Byers, the crusading stepfather who became one of the West Memphis Three’s biggest allies in the years before his 2020 death, to famed FBI criminal profiler (and Mindhunter inspiration) John E. Douglas. That type of support made observers question the verdicts perhaps more so than any rock star who shouted Echols’s name into a mic because of an HBO documentary.
“If the state of Arkansas has a deep and abiding belief that the West Memphis Three are child murderers and did these terrible crimes, then shame on them for letting them out after 18 and a half years because a bunch of celebrities are whining about it,” Berlinger says.
But none of that support has been able to fully exonerate the trio, something they’re still fighting for. Their advocates believe the Alford pleas represent their own form of injustice, but correcting that is a less pressing issue than the early battles—the men are free and have been able to mostly live their lives in the years since their release. (Echols—who is in better health today, though his eyesight has degenerated and he has premature arthritis from his time in solitary confinement—in particular has maintained a relatively public life, through the five books he’s published, performing magic for Patreon subscribers, and making TV appearances to discuss other cases he sees as similar to his.) So with less urgency surrounding full exoneration and no documentary cameras rolling, the question 25 years later becomes: Who is paying close enough attention to the case to pick up the fight?
Dan Stidham, the original attorney for Misskelley, who would also work on Baldwin’s and Echol’s appeals, says he has the answer. Now a judge—who coincidentally works part time in the courtroom where Misskelley was convicted—Stidham spends time speaking to law students about the judicial system. Inevitably, the West Memphis Three case always comes up. He says his students seem to have a better grasp on the idea of coerced confessions than any of his peers in 1994. It’s gone from a controversial legal theory to an accepted phenomenon. And that makes him hopeful that exoneration is on the horizon.
“The governor of the state of Arkansas who will one day pardon the West Memphis Three is probably in junior high right now,” he says.
How do you measure the legacy of Paradise Lost, which is one of the best reviewed documentaries of all time and considered among the most influential, but whose mission is only partly complete? Yes, the West Memphis Three are out of prison, but as long as they are considered guilty in the eyes of the state, the case is closed, meaning no further investigation can occur.
The first and likely simplest gauge is continued interest in the case. While that’s cooled from the days of concerts in the shadows of the Arkansas Supreme Court building, the documentaries still live on HBO Max, where they pull in new viewers to this day. Debates still occur regularly online—the West Memphis Three subreddit is fairly active for one on a 28-year-old case—and podcasts have looked at the crime from all angles. One of those shows, Truth & Justice With Bob Ruff, became the basis for an Oxygen docuseries last year titled The Forgotten West Memphis Three, which took a closer look at the three victims and tried to shine new light on the evidence. This is before considering the 2013 dramatized movie based on the events (and Leveritt’s book), Stidham’s plans to release the book Harvest of Innocence, and how elements of the case made their way into True Detective’s third season.
The second is by looking at it as an act of passion and perseverance. Sheila Nevins, the HBO exec who pushed for Berlinger and Sinofsky to make that initial trip to Arkansas, is most proud of the company’s willingness to let her finance three documentaries over 18 years without knowing where they would go. When Alex Sinofsky is asked about his father’s work on the film, he recalls the frequent trips and long hours spent editing film on a Steenbeck he kept in the house. He says his dad and Berlinger weren’t seeking notoriety—documentaries certainly weren’t a means to get rich or famous in those days. Rather, they were fighting for something they believed in. “By staying on this subject for the next couple of decades, they gave these men a chance and really decades of freedom afterward. That came partially through the exposure they got through this film.”
But perhaps the best measure of Paradise Lost’s impact is the work being done by Baldwin today. He says that while he was in the supermax prison in Varner, he would write letters trying to drum up support for not just himself, but also for other inmates he believed were wrongfully convicted. He knew that if he ever got out, he’d want to do that in a more organized way. When he was released in 2011, he met John Hardin, who worked with the West Memphis Three support group Arkansas Take Action, and the two bonded over a desire to do for others what had just been done for Baldwin. They formed the organization Proclaim Justice, a nonprofit that reinvestigates crimes with the hopes of freeing innocent people. They’ve had several victories, including the case of Daniel Villegas, who was acquitted of capital murder in 2018 after a 25-year legal saga. (Shortly after Villegas’s acquittal, Baldwin had something of a full-circle moment with his client: He took him to a Metallica show in El Paso, Texas, where they hung out backstage on the invitation of Lars Ulrich.)
The nonprofit’s work hasn’t always been easy—fundraising is hard, and because he’s a convicted felon, he’s unable to visit clients in prison or discuss pleas—but it’s been essential for him as he strives to live the words by 14th-century Persian poet Hafez that he keeps as an email signature: “The small man builds cages for everyone he knows / While the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low / Keeps dropping keys all night long for the beautiful rowdy prisoners.” Baldwin says he’s learned that justice isn’t a computer program—that you can input all the evidence and testimony and still get the wrong results. So advocacy and diligence become tantamount, because most people in a similar situation to the one he was in don’t have the benefit of filmmakers and musicians fighting on their behalf. “It has happened to a lot of people that just don’t have the spotlight of a documentary,” he says.
As for Paradise Lost, it was the inciting incident in the two-decade chain of events that led to the release of the West Memphis Three. By going into the courtroom and sticking with the case for its entire duration, Berlinger and Sinofsky were able to capture what may have otherwise been lost to time or left out of transcripts. It’s something that Baldwin couldn’t envision when he first agreed to let the documentarians interview him in jail in exchange for an honorarium, or even when Mojo played that VHS tape for him in 1997.
Speaking by phone last month, he comes across, in many ways, like the person Berlinger says he encountered in prison in 1994: polite, deferential, soft-spoken. He’s subdued when discussing the facts of the case, but he comes alive while recounting his work with the Jaycees while in prison, or buying Metallica’s Black Album when it came out in 1991. But on the subject of Paradise Lost, he speaks emphatically: He understands how important the movies were in helping him, Echols, and Misskelley walk free 10 years ago this August.
“The documentarians found me in one of the worst things a person could go through,” Baldwin says. “I never foresaw that they would in turn save us.”
This article was updated after publication to add more context about the honorariums paid to the families of the victims and the West Memphis Three and also to correct the time frame in which Berlinger and Sinofsky informed HBO about the changing scope of the documentary.