Paradise Asks for Directions in the Case of the West Memphis Three

By Rob Patterson

The strands of popular culture, entertainment, justice and real life get twisted in the most troubling ways in the Paradise Lost series of documentaries detailing the case of the West Memphis Three.

Yet it’s also the first of the three films, subtitled “The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” that has helped unravel some but hardly all of the mess.

It all started when three eight-year-old boys were found brutally murdered and one of them mutilated in a drainage ditch in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993. Three teenagers were convicted for the crimes after one of them confessed.

The teens were outcasts who dressed in black and listened to heavy metal music. A number of locals believed that they had sacrificed the boys in a satanic ritual.

It’s yet another example of an all too common hysteria that hard rock and Satanism are firmly linked in some strange antisocial underworld.

The symbolism and subject matters some rock bands use and what I call a suburban mythology, likely stoked by both fundamentalist Christian fear mongering as well as the prevalence of dark horror films, intertwined to make the teens an ideal target for police and prosecutors.

The trial of two of the teens was filmed and is shown in the original documentary, and it’s a far cry from the efficient and usually just proceedings seen on TV shows like Law & Order.

I was horrified by the incompetence shown by all involved – prosecution, defense, the judge and the lawmen who testified — as the process appeared to railroad the young men, based on what seems likely to be a coerced confession by the third accused teen.

The supposed ringleader, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death.

I’m not the only one who has felt that way. After the 1996 release of the HBO documentary, concerned viewers started the “Free The West Memphis 3” organization. Celebrities like The Dixie Chicks and rocker and spoken word star Henry Rollins rallied to support the effort. The band Metallica, a favorite of Echols, allowed their music to be used in the original Paradise Lost, for the first time in any film.

The entire affair, as seen in the first and second “Paradise Lost” films, suggest very strongly that there is not just something but many things rotten in the heart of this nation, and it is pervasive.

Some of the parents of the murdered kids, who were of course rightly heartbroken and horrified, display a fury nearly as murderous as the intentions of whoever did kill their children.

One of the most public and vociferous of them has even been considered a possible suspect.

The flip side of what the films show is how the documentaries helped fuel and keep awareness of the case alive. So much that the “West Memphis Three” were freed in August in an unusual plea agreement that leaves them open to retrial, which appears unlikely at this time.

Meanwhile, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory premiered this fall on the film festival circuit. While ripples from contemporary entertainment fed into this sordid and troubling affair, the fact that via the documentary films it also likely corrected a terrible injustice offers some hope in one of the most disturbing episodes of crime and its effects in recent memory.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2011

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