This past summer, after serving nearly twenty years behind bars, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols – also known as the West Memphis Three (WM3) – were released from prison after entering Alford pleas (which allow defendants to assert their innocence while acknowledging the existence of substantial evidence that could be used for convictions) with the Arkansas court system. The release of the trio was bittersweet. On the one hand, three men who appear to be innocent were freed to walk the streets. On the other hand, three innocent men were convicted because their interest in Stephen King and Metallica made them different from the bulk of the West Memphis population, and they lost almost twenty years of their lives. Most significantly, the killer or killers behind the murders of three, eight-year-old boys (Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers) have yet to be found.
The Alford plea deal was the long-awaited resolution for a narrative that began in 1996, with the release of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary Paradise Lost – The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. It continued through Revelations(2000) and now finds a possible conclusion in Purgatory (2011), which was in the final stages of post-production when the WM3 were freed. When Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived in West Memphis in 1993-1994, police had found the mutilated remains (an image which haunts the opening moments of the documentary) of three youngsters, left along the riverbank of a wooded park. One of the boys was castrated, rape was alleged, and the town of West Memphis called for justice. Jessie Misskelley Jr., who confessed that he’d watched as Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols murdered the three boys, answered their call.
Misskelley’s confession unleashed a climate of fear, anger, and contempt. The problems with Misskelley’s confession only began to become apparent later: the boy had an IQ of 72, his confession included several inaccuracies, and the police held him without a lawyer being present for nearly twelve hours. Guided by Misskelley’s problematic confession, the West Memphis police arrested Baldwin and Echols and put them on trial for murder (Misskelley would be found guilty and sentenced to life plus forty years in prison). Little physical evidence tied them to the scene, and yet the court sentenced Baldwin to life in prison and condemned Echols to death. Very quickly, the Paradise Lost series became a document investigating the horrors of the lynch mob mentality and the injustices of the justice system.
Purgatory spends a great deal of its running time recapping the past and bringing viewers unfamiliar with the case up to speed. The final half-hour or so deals with newly discovered DNA evidence that has linked Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the boys, to the crime scene. This evidence served as the beginning of the end of the WM3’s term in prison, and yet the victory, given the technicalities of the Alford Plea, are bittersweet, a conclusion Berlinger and Sinofsky never allow us to forget. In the end, Purgatory is a frustrating film. Yet, due to the behind-the-scenes timeline (as I said, the film was on the verge of being finished when the court finally heard the WM3’s appeals), it can’t help but be frustrating. Still, the conclusion of the series and its effect on the WM3’s lives are both beautiful and terrifying. Art has the potential power to right social injustices, but these particular injustices shouldn’t have occurred in the first place.