Not everyone has heard about the West Memphis Three, but they have a solid place in true crime history. Suspected of shocking acts of violence, the accused teenagers known as the West Memphis Three were the subject of a 1996 documentary called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It showed the gruesome truths of the crime and included both sides of the story to avoid bias.
But while making the film, documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky exposed significant problems with the prosecution's case. Paradise Lost changed hearts and minds, became an influential true crime documentary, and even helped save an allegedly innocent man on death row.
The Documentary Presents Both Sides Of The Story
In the film, Berlinger and Sinofsky refrained from sharing their opinions about the West Memphis Three's guilt or innocence. They let the evidence speak for itself instead, presenting events to the audience as they might to a jury.
This objective approach led them to include grim photo and video evidence, such as a depiction of the victims' bodies. Berlinger and Sinofsky also allowed both the victims' and suspects' families to speak freely on camera, presenting their perspectives with equal emotional weight.
Officials Allegedly Coerced Jessie Misskelley's Confession
Police were largely able to arrest and convict the West Memphis Three because of a confession from Jessie Misskelley, which he later recanted. Misskelley reportedly had a low IQ; the interrogation and criminal justice system confused him, and he may not have even understood that his court-appointed lawyer was on his side.
Extracted during almost 12 hours at the police station - less than an hour of which was recorded - Misskelley's confession was full of discrepancies. Many people, including his lawyer, believe detectives pushed the teen to change his admission to better match the evidence.
Investigators Virtually Ignored One Potential Suspect
On the night of the murders, a disoriented man covered in blood and mud reportedly stumbled into a West Memphis Bojangles restaurant. He collapsed in the women's restroom, smearing blood on the walls and soaking a toilet paper roll, but he left before the police arrived.
Detectives collected blood scrapings from the wall, but the evidence was lost. They also reportedly told the Bojangles manager he could throw away the toilet paper roll.
Later, a crime lab analyst looking at the sheet once wrapped around Christopher Byers's body found a fragment of hair that could potentially have matched the suspicious man.
One Victim's Stepfather Gave The Filmmakers A Bloody Knife
While filming Paradise Lost, a cameraman received a knife as a Christmas gift from Mark John Byers, the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers. Blood visibly stained the weapon's hinge, and the filmmakers agonized over whether they should report it. They eventually turned it over, and analysts learned the blood matched Christopher's.
Defense lawyers introduced the knife during the trials, but Byers couldn't explain where the blood had come from. Regardless, Byers was eventually ruled out as a suspect.