Documentaries, Celebrity Intervention Impact ‘West Memphis 3’ Case

Like everything else about the now-infamous and controversial West Memphis 3 murder case, today’s news that an Arkansas judge granted defendants Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley immediate freedom after serving 18 years in prison – Echols on death row — could be straight out of a movie.

Incredibly, it really was a movie that helped bring an end to years of incarceration — two movies, in fact: the 1996 HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and its follow-up, in 2000, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Created by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the docs chronicle the West Memphis 3 defendants’ struggle to prove their innocence since May 1993, when they were arrested for allegedly killing three Cub Scouts and dumping the boys’ mutilated bodies in an Arkansas ditch.

After watching the very persuasive, not overly manipulative films, celebrities including Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines were convinced that justice had eluded the West Memphis 3. They helped fund a legal team that managed to win the men a new trial. (Both Vedder and Maines were in the courtroom today, awaiting the judge’s decision.)

In Berlinger and Sinofsky’s yet-to-be-released part three of the West Memphis 3 trilogy, Echols says the attention the documentaries have drawn has been critical to the case – and this was months before today’s ruling was even a consideration.

As comment boards across the Web already display, the fact that three alleged Cub Scout-killers are now free doesn’t make everyone happy. But it’s not often a series of small-budget documentaries so dramatically, genuinely influences lives. Why are these so effective? That’s something worth taking note of, regardless of whose story one chooses to believe.

Paradise Lost 3, set to premiere next month at the Toronto International Film Festival, is scheduled to air on HBO in January.