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'Paradise Lost' Helped Save Three Innocent Men From A Wrongful Murder Conviction

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.

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  • A Search Party Found The Bodies Of Three Boys In The Woods
    Photo: Thomas R. Machnitzki / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    A Search Party Found The Bodies Of Three Boys In The Woods

    On the night of May 5, 1993, in West Memphis, AR, three 8-year-old Cub Scouts did not come home. Locals searched for Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers in the mosquito-infested woods the next day, eventually finding their bodies submerged in mud near a drainage ditch.

    The boys were bound and missing clothing, and they showed evidence of various wounds and bites. The discovery shocked and outraged the community.

  • Some Locals Blamed A Satanic Cult

    Because of the binding and injury to the boys' bodies, many people - including the West Memphis police - suspected satanic cultists had perpetrated the gruesome acts. Rumors spread even more as local and national media covered the case.

    Local probation officer Jerry Driver told investigators about his suspicions of occult activity in the area, pointing particularly to one of his teenage probation charges, Damien Echols.

  • Three Teenagers Faced Conviction

    Police focused on local outsider Damien Echols during the investigation. Neighbors deemed Echols suspicious because of his juvenile criminal record and his unusual clothing and religious beliefs. Police eventually announced they had enough evidence to arrest Echols, his best friend Jason Baldwin, and their former classmate Jessie Misskelley.

    In 1994, the trials ended with convictions for all three of the defendants. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences, and Echols went to death row.

  • The Filmmakers Initially Thought The Accused Were Guilty
    Photo: HBO

    The Filmmakers Initially Thought The Accused Were Guilty

    Early in the trial, Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived in West Memphis, AR, with their crew. They were intrigued by the details of the murder and "went down to make a film about guilty teenagers, like a real River's Edge," according to Berlinger.

    Instead, as Berlinger and Sinofsky talked to locals, they grew skeptical over the lack of evidence and abundance of factual discrepancies in the case.

  • The Documentary Presents Both Sides Of The Story
    Photo: HBO

    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
    Photo: HBO

    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.