Interview: Bruce Sinofsky
Article ID: 1897
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 7,114
Times Read: 21,762
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: July 28th. 1997
Times Viewed: 21,762
I had the opportunity to talk with Bruce on September 27, the night Paradise Lost opened at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA. Bruce introduced me to several young friends from the Boston area, whom he had met a week earlier in New York. These college students had traveled to Manhattan for the film's premiere there, and have been involved in the West Memphis Three Support Fund. We sat around in a smoky bar and chatted during the early evening show, then we all followed Bruce back to the theatre, where he answered questions from the audience. Then the 9:30 PM show started, and we all dispersed for a while (the students went to a party, I went to a nearby friend's house, and I suppose Bruce stayed at the theatre), then met back at the theatre for a second question and answer session. A portion of the material for this interview is taken in part from those audience discussions.
Peg: It seems the majority of responses to the film have been in agreement with your own beliefs, that the West Memphis Three are innocent and the real killer has not yet been apprehended. But what about those who think the right killers are in jail? What is the ratio of "Guiltys" to "Not guiltys"?
Bruce: Not too many people think they're really guilty; maybe twenty percent say things like "Well it may have been them." One reporter from a Jonesboro newspaper said "I know they did it; did you look at Damien's eyes?" But so many people who feel this way have no answer when you confront them with the complete lack of evidence. No blood at the crime scene; and as for the claim that these were occult-related killings, there was nothing at the crime scene to indicate that, either: no blood, no candle wax, no pentagrams, no dead animals, nothing. But people wanted so badly to believe Damien was guilty, it was an open and shut case, despite the lack of evidence.
Peg: What about the response of Arkansas citizens who have seen it?
Bruce: Well, it wasn't what you'd call a groundswell or anything, but there were in fact many people saying they should get a new trial. One byproduct of the film's nationwide release has been is that when the Arkansas Supreme Court hears the appeals, they will know many people are watching and waiting to see what happens; they can't just rubber-stamp it like last time.
Peg: What do you think about groups or individuals emphasizing what the film may be saying about religious freedom? Do you think the focus on Paganism or Witches' rights to worship might confuse things and draw attention away from the real issue of the boys' guilt or innocence in these crimes?
Bruce: I think any good film raises many issues, and so hopefully this film is about much more than guilt or innocence. It also deals with stereotypes and hypocrisy. I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing for Pagan groups to think this film deals with religious rights, though. Look at what Damien's sister says: Just because someone wears black and has different beliefs, is no reason to convict them of a crime they didn't commit. This sort of thing does happen.
Peg: Yes; all the time unfortunately. The film indicts prejudice, and maybe it indicts the provincial locations and attitudes that create prejudice. I remember at the (Boston) Film Festival screening, one person made a comment about how these people in West Memphis seemed to be, as he put it, "cerebrally challenged, " and he was roundly hissed by the audience. But in a typical New England fashion, they were criticizing him for saying, in fact, what many of them were probably thinking. So was it your experience that there was a huge amount of ignorance in this community?
Bruce: Well, maybe they weren't the brightest people; the mayor, the judge, the attorneys were the only ones who were college-educated, really, most everyone had only attended high school. I mean, it's a depressed area, it's a small town. But the usual response to the sort of grammar and syntax used there, "y'all gonna come?" or "I ain't never seen such and such, " that creates prejudice because people assume this kind of syntax means people are stupid. Anyone who thinks intellect and intolerance are automatically linked is a snob who doesn't have a very broad-minded view of the world. (I am afraid he thinks I share this view, and, well, maybe I do; but then I taught English for several years. Bruce goes on to mention the differences between West memphis and the town where "Brother's Keeper" was filmed.) In West Memphis, we weren't really made very welcome at first. In fact we received death threats and barricaded our hotel rooms at night. During "Brother's Keeper" the townspeople were always us for dinner, and to barbecues, and bringing us plates of cookies and fudge all the time. The way we work, the kinds of films we make, Joe and I spend a lot of time with people, in their homes, we see their private lives during stressful times. We manage to gain a lot of trust and usually it's great, but in this case it took more time. For instance, we only gained access to the courtroom a week before the trial started. It was our offer to light the courtroom, and especially to set up microphones so the jury and everyone could hear better, that helped us gain that access.
Peg: There were a couple of oddities I wanted to ask about. Much has been made of the pentagram that appears on Byers' forehead during the cemetery scene (in the film, the sun shines through a star atop a tiny Christmas tree the Byers' place on their dead son's grave, and the shadow of the star hits John Mark Byers in the middle of the forehead); was that mere coincidence? Many people think it must have been intentional. And I wondered about the number on the court docket, that ends in "666."
Bruce: Both of those things were complete coincidences. The docket number, 93-05-666, simply stood for May 1993, and it was the six hundred and sixty-sixth case so far that year. Weird, but true. It was just the next number up. As for the star, that was strange but it was completely accidental. When it happened Joe and I just looked at each other, and kept filming. The thing is, Byers was just too weird for us to be able to stage anything. We just turned on the camera and he did his thing. The only scene with him we planned beforehand was the helicopter scene. Byers was an amazing person to be around; like a chameleon, the way he was always changing his hair and the way he looked. He was very eager to be filmed. And this was on some level great for us, because when you make a documentary you don't have the same luxury you have with narrative films of creating these interesting characters from your imagination, or with acting. And here we had this amazing character who did these incredible things, the shooting of the pumpkins, the singing before the congregation, all of it. Even after what happened with the knife, when we wondered if he'd even consent to be filmed again or if he'd even talk to us, his desire to be filmed in the end outweighed his need to feel hurt or angry at us.
Peg: Could you talk about the circumstances surrounding the knife and how it was given to you?
Bruce: We had spent a long, hard day filming, it was very emotional and everyone was tired and drained. We went back to the Byers' house for coffee and we were just sitting at the kitchen table. One of the cameramen, who eventually left the project, because he was just so freaked out by what happened, had a conversation with Byers earlier about knives; I guess they talked about knives and hunting and had sort of bonded. The cameraman was exhausted and so was lying down on the couch in another room. He says that Byers came up and started rubbing his arm in a sort of homoerotic way, saying "I have something for you, " and gave him this hunting knife. He said "This will save your life one day, " and "we are kindred spirits, " and that sort of thing. The cameraman didn't really know what to say, but thanked him, and later that night when we got to the hotel he told us about it. So we were just looking at it, and noticed what looked like blood, but not on the blade, it was inside the place where the knife folds, almost as if it had been bloody but not cleaned thoroughly.
So we didn't know what to do. Here's this guy, who may after all be a suspect, he gives us this knife that may turn out to be the murder weapon. We had a real dilemma, on several levels. Professionally, we didn't want to damage the relationship and trust we'd formed with these people, but we already knew how strange he was, and what if it turned out he was hiding something? And we also didn't know what would happen if we turned it in, whether HBO would be asked to leave, or what. So this was an extremely difficult decision for us, but we finally decided we needed to turn it in as evidence. (Interviewer's note: Aside from some fiber evidence possibly but not conclusively linking one of the accused to the crime scene, the ONLY physical evidence in this case linked to one of the victims was the blood on the knife. The DNA material found in the bloodstain was of a type matching both Byers and his stepson, Christopher, but was still determined inconclusive evidence. But when questioned, Byers contradicted himself several times when asked about whether the knife had ever been used before, or whether he or anyone else had ever cut themselves on it. It was a serrated knife, and so its blade could have made the wounds found on the bodies.)
Peg: At one point Damien, being interviewed in jail before his trial, says he believes whatever you do, whether good or bad, comes back to you in some way. And that the killer or killers, even if they are never caught, something will happen in their lives as a result of having done it. I think of this because it is a tenet of the Wiccan faith known as the Witches' Rede; but I also think of the things that have befallen the families of the victims, and of the convicted young men, since the end of Damien and Jason's trial. Melissa Byers died mysteriously, for example. Can you talk about some of what has happened since?
Bruce: Well, as you know Melissa took a nap one day with Mark and simply didn't wake up. But the toxicology report from her autopsy has not been released, and is being closely guarded for some reason. We think drugs were probably involved. (Interviewer's note: a medical examiner's report has since been released but the media has not yet stated the exact cause of her death, except to say that there were not sufficient levels of drugs in her system to have killed her. Her death is still under investigation.) She was taking a number of anti-depressants, including Zanax, Prozac and others. Some days during the filming she was really out of it, her face drooping and looking awful; towards the end she was very bloated. We have caught some flak for doing what some people call "making people look bad" in the film, but we didn't ever try to do that, we simply filmed people as they were. But we did intentionally leave out some footage of Melissa Byers where she looked really awful.
As for the others, a lot of strange things have happened. Damien's parents split up, and his mother had a duel fought over her, and one of the men died. And Jessie's father has had problems with several girlfriends. John Mark Byers has a new girlfriend, who two or three years ago shot her sixteen-year old son dead in self-defense. (Interviewer's note: an article appearing in the Village Voice in October mentioned other details about the lives of the victims' families. Victim Michael Moore's mother was charged with vehicular homicide after she hit a young mother of two while driving drunk. Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Stevie Branch, beat his wife Pam "to a pulp" in November 1994; he later shot Pam's brother. Jessie Misskelley, Sr. suffered severe burns from a gasoline fire; this after his mobile home was wrecked and he had moved into his pick-up truck. Byers and the late Melissa had been accused of stealing thousands of dollars worth of furniture from neighbors and selling it at pawnshops. Byers was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor by coercing two teenage boys to fight with knives. Before the trial, Byers' record was already full of many disturbing run-ins with the law, including holding his parents at knifepoint when he was a teenager.) The thing is, these are all people whose lives were pretty messed up well before the murders happened. And then after something of this magnitude, it stands to reason things aren't going to suddenly improve.
Peg: It is true, you have been accused of indicting West Memphis on some level, of making people, as you say, look bad. I've heard the term "trailer trash" used, as if your film somehow defines it with these portrayals. How do you tend to answer these accusations?
Bruce: I completely disagree. We showed people as they were, we did not intentionally set up anything to show anyone in a negative light. Some things that happened were just accidents. The scene with Pam Hobbs talking to the reporter, in the red dress, drunk; she wasn't even supposed to be there that da3r vbcgy. She had just been in an institution for two days, after having a nervous breakdown, and she just basically wandered onto the location while we were shooting. As for the accusations that we are biased in what we show, we really didn't know how we would feel about the outcome of the trial when we began the film. The film we set out to make, that HBO thought we set out to make, is not really what we ended up with; it took on a life of its own, as this type of thing always does. We set out to be fair to both sides; and we let people decide how to view themselves. Most everyone in the film had a chance to see it on tape before it was shown on HBO. Those who sided with the defense thought it was pro-prosecution; and those who sided with the prosecution thought it was pro-defense! It was really weird.
Peg: You say you have been in touch with Damien through his attorney. And that you recently saw an interview with him that was taped for Court TV. What do you think; how is he holding up?
Bruce: We have written to him directly but it seems that he does not always get our letters. On the tape, he looked very thin, and his hair has gotten very long; it's kind of nasty-looking.
Peg: Many people comment on the scenes of him in the film, fiddling with his hair, the brushes and hair spray and such. I thought it was an amazing thing to see, this very human display of vanity, while this kid's being tried for murder.
Bruce: He doesn't look that good, now. We've been told he will only eat Snickers bars and drink Cokes; he won't touch anything that's not wrapped. I guess he's afraid of people pissing in his food and so forth.
Peg: He was raped in prison, while two guards looked on. He's also been beaten repeatedly. Is that sort of thing still happening?
Bruce: That pretty much stopped after the lawsuit he brought against them, I believe. He is having trouble now also with receiving books; they won't let him have books on white magic. He says he appreciates life more now. What can you say? He's got twenty-two hours a day to think. He seems to be holding up reasonably well.
Peg: What about Jason and Jessie?
Bruce: They are being held in the same facility. Jason had lost his visiting privileges for a month. He does get to see Jessie, and sometimes they talk. I imagine it is like having something of a life preserver at sea: a familiar face.
Peg: How close were they all, really, before the murders? Do you have a sense of that?
Bruce: I think he (Jessie) was really a friend of convenience. Sort of like, when there's no one else to call, you call Jessie. By the way, Jason and Damien never said they were angry at Jessie about the confession. They seemed to think he was just too stupid to not be maneuvered by the police in the way he was. There is also a lot of history between their parents. Jessie's Dad hated Damien's and Jason's mothers. He was having a thing with Damien's mother and had caught her in his trailer cheating with another man, so the relationship ended.
Peg: You and Joe (Berlinger) are hoping the film will have some impact on the appeals process. Jessie's appeal was unfortunately denied, as you have said, because the court upheld the validity of his so-called "confession." But Jason and Damien's appeals will be heard this fall. What are some of the things you saw happen in and out of the courtroom that convinced you the legal process was unfair?
Bruce: When you film over a hundred hours of material and you're making a film that is an hour and a half long, so much doesn't get seen. We have enough footage of Mark Byers alone to make another fascinating film. But these trials were exceptional for so many reasons. The defense attorneys were court-appointed. Only Price, Damien's attorney, had any experience with a murder trial; most of the other lawyers had mainly done things like divorce proceedings. Paul Ford volunteered to defend Jason after 5 other lawyers turned it down, mainly because, I think, he wanted the attention. There was so much stuff in the newspapers before the jury selection, there was no way an impartial jury could be found. Some of the "news" stories were merely press releases put out by the prosecuting attorney's office.
During the trial, the jury had basically made up its mind and seldom even paid attention while important testimony was being given. For example, when the fact that there was no blood at the crime scene was being discussed, we saw jurors doodling and playing hangman on pads of paper; they obviously weren't listening. As for the judge, he was an ex-prosecutor himself, and he kept signaling the prosecution as to when they should object. He even at one point asked them, "Don't you want to object to that?" We kept trying to catch this on camera, but couldn't get it. He also didn't allow certain testimony to be used, like the drug counselor who had worked with Carson, the witness who testified against Jason. So the jury didn't know this kid was a drug addict, and therefore probably unreliable. The jury thought that Paul Ford was mocking the prosecution's expert witness, when he proved the guy had a mail order Ph.D. And the jury also was offended at the presence of the defense's expert witness, the psychologist from Berkeley, once they heard his fee was over $100 an hour. That didn't sit well with blue collar workers in a poor town in Arkansas.
Location: Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
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