UPDATE: The West Memphis Three were set free today after entering new pleas during a court hearing. See our original post below. HBO is set to reair both Paradise Lost (on 8/29) and Paradise Lost 2 (on 8/30) following the decision.
Directors Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger aren’t household names – but if this morning’s emergency hearing in the case of The West Memphis 3 leads to all three convicted men being released from prison, they could find themselves becoming very popular over the course of the next few hours.
The filmmakers were sent by HBO to chronicle the murder trial of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, and Jason Baldwin in the mid 1990s. The three young men were being tried for the brutal slayings of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Tennessee. What appeared at first to be an open and shut case – prosecutors painted the three alleged killers as satanists because they listened to heavy metal and wore black clothing – soon became anything but. Berlinger and Sinofsky made two films (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations) about the trio’s legal battle – which eventually ended in a conviction that sent Echols to death row and his friends to long prison terms – and those documentaries were instrumental in making the public at large more aware of what looked like a gigantic miscarriage of justice.
The filmmakers, who’ve done other work over the years (including the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster), have never stopped following the case – and are putting the finishing touches on a third documentary chronicling the ongoing legal struggle of the defendants. Today’s hearing might mean they have to shoot a new ending, but if it means the West Memphis 3 finally walk out of prison as free men, they’re okay with that. “We always lamented the fact that we had to keep making sequels to this horrifying real life story,” Berlinger tells Deadline.
Should the trio be granted their freedom today, something that seems quite likely based on various press reports, Berlinger and Sinofsky will have played a monumental role in overturning the guilty verdicts and will join filmmaker Errol Morris in the exclusive club of director’s whose work freed innocent men (Morris’ A Thin Blue Line overturned the conviction of Randall Adams, a man sent to prison for killing a police officer back in 1976). The duo won’t take credit for the potential release of the West Memphis 3, but do acknowledge that their work helped bring the case to the public beyond the West Memphis area.
“Bruce and I feel grateful to have served as the lucky stewards of a story that just had to be told. But we also believe the films kept these guys alive. Guys like [Pearl Jam frontman Eddie] Vedder and [Johnny] Depp funded this case because they saw Paradise Lost and were outraged.”
Regardless of whether or not you think The West Memphis 3 were guilty, a story like this proves how powerful cinema in general, and the documentary form in particular, can be. Were it not for the work of Berlinger and Sinofsky, Echols (who’s been on death row for over 18 years) would have been executed – for a crime he most likely didn’t commit. The filmmakers can hopefully rest easy tonight, knowing their work may have helped free three innocent men.
Check out a teaser trailer for Paradise Lost 3 below.