The question facing Damien Echols is: Can fame affect the outcome?
Echols sits on Arkansas’s Death Row. He and two other boys from West Memphis, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, both serving life terms, are the subjects of “Paradise Lost,” a documentary film that has been attracting critical acclaim since it began opening in theaters last month.
Between now and December, the film, with music contributed by Metallica, will be seen at some 200 U.S. theaters. Using extensive trial footage, it chronicles the convictions of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, who were accused of slaying three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis. The trials themselves–there were two–unfold between compelling vignettes of almost everyone involved in the case: the accused and their families, members of the victims’ families, the lawyers, and even the judge. As it turns out, the best decision Judge David Burnett made regarding the trials may have been to allow them to be recorded. Thanks to the release of this film, the trials may get the scrutiny they deserve.
West Memphis will be scrutinized too. It’s image in the film is not a flattering one. For many viewers, the city emerges as a small southern town where three boys could be convicted of three murders on hardly any evidence at all, amid an atmosphere steeped in religion, fear, and inexplicable mutterings about Satanism. Reviewers have described West Memphis as a place where a little nonconformity can get a person convicted of murder.
The directors of “Paradise Lost” are among the best in the business, and the film is expected to win several awards. “Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky got robbed when their brilliant ‘Brother’s Keeper’ didn’t even get a Best Documentary Oscar nomination,” a reviewer for the Boston Phoenix wrote. “If they are similarly snubbed for their HBO-produced ‘Paradise Lost,’ it will be a miscarriage of justice on the scale of the story the film relates.”
Siskel and Ebert gave “Paradise Lost” their two thumbs up and predicted it will be one of their top 10 picks for the year. They agreed the film “develops all of the energy and drama of a great court case and a social document.”
“‘Paradise Lost’ runs two-and-a-half hours,” Siskel said. “I easily could have watched another hour–another two hours–of this material. It’s that strong and sad and outrageous.”
“Oh, it is a great film, Gene,” Ebert agreed, “and one of the things it points out is the need, the real need to create the idea of Satanic rituals in order to explain crimes, because it’s not enough that there could be a sick deviate out there who would kill these boys.
“And then the evidence that builds up: There was no blood at the murder site–eight pints of blood disappeared. The kids are too small to have carried the bodies there. The mutilations couldn’t have taken place, apparently–at least, a doctor says–at night, underwater, in the dark. The murders apparently took place someplace else, and there is compelling evidence that these three kids didn’t do it But everybody in the town and in the courtroom and on the jury are all blinded by their fantasies about Satanic cults, and they can’t listen to reason.”
Release of the film has prompted dozens of articles examining the case in newspapers across the country, causing several reporters to become familiar with its many oddities. The headlines speak for themselves. “Gripping ‘Paradise Lost’ exposes murder trial, town,” the Boston Globe reported. “Three young boys are found murdered in small-town Arkansas,” runs a headline in Details magazine, “and three local metalheads are found guilty.”
And here’s the spin from Spin: “Echols is the town Gothic-rockhead and Baldwin is his sidekick,” wrote Michael Atkinson. “Their only alibi is each other, and a trial of almost medieval ignorance ensues.” Atkinson isn’t too taken with the footage of Echols, whom he describes as “so repellent, vain, and resigned to doom he carries the odor of the terminally twisted.” But he’s scathing in his take on West Memphis.
“Drunk on prayer and guns,” he wrote, “West Memphis is the kind of dreary hellhole that America is sick in the blood with, where the tragic cycle of dumb, fucked-up kids going toe-to-toe with dumb, fucked-up adults, and losing every time, rolls inexorably onward. ‘Paradise Lost’ offers a wicked, chilling tour.”
The documentary first aired on television in June, in a two-part series on HBO. That showing spawned considerable interest in the case. Echols said he received letters of support from several hundred viewers, a few of whom have organized efforts to try to help him and Baldwin, and Misskelley, a trio supporters are calling the West Memphis Three.
After seeing the HBO presentation this summer, James Sparks, a criminology doctoral candidate in Pennsylvania, and Rick Staton, a mortician in Baton Rouge, decided to establish a fund to help the three in their appeals. Account number 70895-4888 is now set up in care of Union Planters Bank of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, because, according to its founders, bankers in Arkansas refused to open an account for the convicted child-killers. Sparks and Staton say that one banker told them, ‘You won’t find a bank in Arkansas that will touch this.'”
The two men and a handful of other advocates have begun distributing leaflets about the case at theaters where the film is opening and operating “a little generic web site,” at gothamcity.com/paradiselost/. Now, with the film’s theatrical release, Sparks and Staton hope the framework they’ve established can channel the reaction of new viewers who share their indignation.
Arkansans will be able to see “Paradise Lost” on Oct. 19, when it opens at the Hot Springs Film Festival. The following week, on Oct. 25, the film is scheduled to open in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jonesboro, Conway, Bella Vista and Hot Springs.
The showings are bound to be controversial. The Arkansas Supreme Court has already upheld one of the most controversial aspects of the case, Misskelley’s quickly recanted confession. Critics have expressed surprise that Arkansas courts accepted a confession taken from a minor–Misskelley was 17 at the time–with a low IQ, after hours of questioning by police, with no parent or lawyer present.
Many viewers contrast these trials with the more recent “trial of the century.” Rick Staton’s observation is typical. “Here’s O.J. Simpson who walks, with all this incredible evidence against him,” he says, “and here are these three boys, who are convicted on virtually nothing.”
The three men who are the subjects of the film have not been allowed to see it. But they have felt its effects. After it aired on HBO last summer, Echols received several hundred letters. He now sends the writers’ names and addresses to Sparks and Staton, who, in turn, send out what amounts to a press release, along with a polite appeal for funds.
Now, with the film’s theatrical release, the letters have surged again. “I got one letter from a guy who saw it in Greenwich Village,” Echols said in a recent interview. “He told me he’d gone to see the film because everybody he knew–his parents and all his friends–told him, ‘This could have happened to you. You wore black. You were like that. That could have been you on trial.'”
Dominik Teer, Echols’ girlfriend during the trial and the mother of his son, now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. He says the last time he saw either one of them was at the trial. Since then, they’ve talked on the phone “a few times” and they’ve exchanged “a few letters.”
But if his Arkansas connections have dwindled to few or none, the rest of Echols’ world has expanded. As a result of contacts made after the HBO premiere, Echols regularly talks by phone to about a half dozen people around the country. Kirk Hammett, a guitarist for Metallica, wrote him a note saying, as Echols recalled, “Hang in there, we’re all behind you.” Horror writer Clive Barker sent him a magazine autographed, “Best wishes,” and Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote “Dead Man Walking,” the book that was made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, dropped a line to say, as Echols remembers it, “‘Choose life’–whatever that means.”
Echols’ tastes in music and literature have also expanded in prison. He listens to classical music on the radio almost constantly and has become a fan of Chopin (“I think the ‘Nocturne” was one of the prettiest things he wrote”), Paganini (” He had a reputation kind of like Ozzie Osborne has now, he was like the Jimmi Hendrix of the violin”), and Vivaldi (“There’s always something scary about his music”).
Lately, Echols has been reading a book of Chopin’s letters, prompting the inmate to become indignant about George Sand’s treatment of her lover. “She broke him, she crippled him,” he says. Asked if he’d read any of Sand’s books, Echols replied loyally, “No, and I don’t want to.”
Another book he recently read and liked is Mikhail Bulgakov’s, “The Master and Margarita,” which was sent to him by a woman in New York. But Echols maintains that prison officials have denied him other books that have been sent to him, particularly books about paganism. He believes the same misunderstandings about paganism that focused attention on him as a suspect in the murders is continuing to work against him in prison. Echols recently filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the prison’s rejection of “six or seven” books he’s ordered is a violation of religious freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
Other than that, Echols said life at the Maximum Security Unit has become pretty quiet for him. “I’m pretty much ignored here now,” he said. “Nobody pays much attention to me. When I first came here, it was like having a purple monkey in the living room. You can’t help but notice it. But after time, you get so you don’t notice it. It’s just a purple monkey.”
However, the three years he’s spent in prison shows. At 5-8 and 121 lbs., Echols looks gaunt. His dark hair, much shorter at the time of his trial, hangs past his shoulders now. His fingernails are long, which he explains as simply a personal preference. He speaks in a soft voice, though his conversation tends to be animated. Asked how he’s changed, he said, “I don’t really think I could think of many ways that I’m the same. I came in here as a child and a few years have passed, and in this type of environment, I think you might age a little more rapidly.” He added, “I think when people come here they do one of two things, they don’t change emotionally at all, or we turn into old men very quickly.”
He said he’s developed a deeper sense of what it means to be a pagan and that that brought him peace of mind. “I think I have a much more mature understanding,” he said. “I have found purpose in being on this earth. If I would have known that everything in my life had to happen to bring me to this point, I would gladly have gone through it, even if it means sitting here being innocent on Death Row.”
Echols said that, while he doubts he’ll ever get used to being in prison, he has discovered a loveliness to life, which is something new to him. “I’ve always had this extremely self-destructive streak, which coming here has somehow made me overcome.”
Asked if his behavior during the investigation of the murders and during his trial–especially that taunting the police–was what he would call self-destructive, Echols quickly replied, “Oh yes. I played with the cops’ minds. I deliberately led them after me, even knowing the consequences of it. Basically, I knew they were looking at me anyway, so I figured, if you haven’t done anything wrong, they can’t prove you’ve done anything wrong, so I might as well have some fun while they’re looking at me.”
Now he considers that approach stupid and one of “extreme vanity.” “I knew it could blow up in my face,” he said, “but I was still getting off on it.” Asked why, he suggests, “I guess for the same reason that people dodge trains. It’s something to break the mundanity of their lives, something to give them some distraction.” When he came to Death Row, Echols had been on prescription anti-depressants for a couple of years. He stopped cold-turkey upon entering the penitentiary, and now says he’s not as depressed as he was while on the medication. “Now to get depressed, I have go work on it,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m quite a bit more cheerful now.”
“Yeah,” he replied, cracking an ironic smile. “I always feel like an idiot when I’m cheerful.”
Hope, too, is having an effect. Having entered Death Row as a teenager, Echols now has the comfort of friends who believe he is innocent. Still, he knows that, no matter how many friends he has or how much attention the film gets, his future rests with the courts. He hopes to see his conviction overturned. “I don’t think that will happen in the Arkansas Supreme Court,” he said, “but I hope that once I get into federal court, they will see this case for what it is.”
What is that?
“A joke,” he says.
It’s not the word that will rush to mind as viewers across America watch “Paradise Lost” in the next few months. To almost anyone who sees this powerful documentary, the word more likely to come to mind is ‘tragedy.