Film: Revelations - Witchvox Review
Article ID: 2719
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 5,594
Times Read: 34,804
Author: Peg Aloi [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: March 12th. 2000
Times Viewed: 34,804
A Triple Child Homicide
Three Teens Convicted
A Community Torn Apart
Years Later, Questions Remain, and Doubt Lingers...
In 1996, a documentary film called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which aired on HBO and in theatres nationwide, brought to worldwide attention a crime which occurred in a tiny, forgotten town in the rural South. The film's depiction of the criminal trial, which ended with the conviction of three teenagers for murder, shocked many viewers with its unparalleled access to the families of the victims and the accused, as well as its daily coverage of events in the courtroom. Since its release to widespread critical acclaim (Roger Ebert named it one of his top ten films of the year, and it won a Peabody Award for documentary filmmaking), Paradise Lost has gained a small but enthusiastic following of activists who believe the three prisoners (now aged 21, 24 and 25 and known as The West Memphis Three), deserve a new trial and that the real killer (or killers) has not been apprehended. Filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger have made a sequel entitled Revelations: Paradise Lost 2, which premieres on HBO Monday March 13.
The Witches' Voice has been covering this case since the film was released in 1996. Our interview with co-director Bruce Sinofsky was an opportuity to hear some facts and details firsthand from someone who chronicled every moment of the trial. Because one of the young men convicted, Damien Echols, was rumored to be involved in devil worship, when in fact he was only dabbling in Wicca, we thought it important at the time to bring attention to this case and examine the role played by ignorance, prejudice and "satanic panic." Years later, a great many people who have watched Paradise Lost question whether justice was served, and there is now a worldwide network of supporters of all religious persuasions who fervently believe The West Memphis Three deserve a new trial.
Background on the Case
Because the case is such a complex and controversial one, it is useful to review some of the facts of the case revealed in the first film before speaking about the sequel. I should make it clear right now that, in my opinion, the three men in prison for these crimes are innocent. But whether I felt they were innocent or not, I do think anyone watching these films will come away believing that, at the very least, justice has not been served, and the West Memphis Three have been victims of a grossly negligent criminal justice system.
It has now been nearly seven years since the horrific murders occurred in West Memphis, Arkansas. On May 5, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found in a small wooded area known as Robin Hood Hills, where many area children and youths would play and hike. Christopher Byers was sexually mutilated, nearly castrated, and stabbed; Michael Moore and Stevie Branch were stabbed, beaten, hogtied with shoelaces and thrown into the shallow water to drown. The rural, financially-depressed, primarily-Baptist community of West Memphis was sickened and outraged. Very soon after the bodies were discovered, rumors began to circulate that these killings were the work of a satanic cult: a ritualized human sacrifice. One local teen, 17-year-old Damien Echols, was seen as an outsider for his tastes in heavy metal music by groups like Metallica, his penchant for black clothes including t-shirts and trench coats, and for practicng Wicca. One police officer at the time was quoted as saying "It looks like Damien Echols has finally killed someone."
Although Echols had had only minor run-ins with the law, he immediately came under suspicion for the murders. After about a month with no significant leads, the police, who had never faced such a brutal crime against children in their community, were under intense pressure to make an arrest. West Memphis residents wanted to feel safe at night; they wanted justice; they wanted to punish whoever murdered their children. They wanted to ferret out the evil that had cruelly shattered their lives. The police began to stake out Damien Echols' home.
False Confessions and Media Feeding Frenzy
One of Damien's acquaintances, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., a developmentally-disabled young man with an IQ of 72, thought he might win some reward money if he offered information to the police. He was questioned by detectives about Damien's involvement. After twelve hours of questioning with neither an attorney or family member present, 17-year old Jessie "confessed" to being at the scene of the crime, and implicated Echols and Jason Baldwin, then 15. At Misskelley's trial, although his confession was shown by the defense to be riddled with contradictions, including the time of the killings, and although a legal expert in false confessions testified that the confession was coerced, he was convicted and sentenced to life plus forty years.
Although Misskelley's confession was inadmissible as evidence in the trials of Echols and Baldwin, the police leaked the confession to the press, thereby making it nearly impossible for an impartial jury to be found. This should have resulted in a mistrial but, inexplicably, did not. The media coverage of the trial was intense, and sensational reports full of rumors of satanic cults and devil worship, midnight sabbats, blood-letting rituals, and similar titillating nonsense filled the nightly news. Damien and Jason's love of horror movies and heavy metal music was offered as an indication of their propensity towards occult crime. In an earlier interview with Sinofsky he mentions that the prosecuting attorney's office sent press releases to reporters, and material straight from these press releases were then passed off as journalism. Berlinger told me recently that the television reporters for the trial were young, just out of college, and spent far more time worrying about their make-up and how they looked than about actively investigating the case. It is now widely-accepted that the irresponsible media coverage surrounding this case is in part responsible for the trial's outcome, because the news reporters, rather than attempting to find truth behind rumors of satanic cults, merely sought to confirm and elaborate those rumors.
Although Damien's court-appointed lawyer, Val Price, tried to make it clear that Wicca and Satanism are not linked, the prosecution focused on proving Damien's interest in the occult as evidence he was involved in the murders. Despite the almost total lack of physical evidence linking any of the teenagers to the crime (all three had alibis for the night of the killings; there was no blood found at the crime scene, and no mosquito bites on the victims' bodies, disproving Misskelley's assertion that the murders occurred there; there was no DNA evidence linking the accused to the crime; and, significantly, there was no indication at the crime scene that the killings were of a cultic or ritualized nature), and despite the prosecution's expert witness on occult crime being revealed as a charlatan with a mail-order PhD, the relentless talk of satanic cults convinced the jury and judge that Damien was responsible. One police officer admitted she failed to even get out of the car when called to a location where a possible suspect was found, disoriented and covered with blood. The filmmakers say they observed jurors drawing pictures and playing hangman while testimony was taking place. Damien and Jason were summarily convicted; Damien was sentenced to die by lethal injection, and Jason was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. (For detailed information about the criminal investigation, the trial ,the media's coverage and other aspects of the case, go to www.wm3.org).
Since the Trial
Some who have seen Paradise Lost believe Damien's own behavior on the witness stand did not help him; he appears aloof, even arrogant at times. He has since stated he realizes how inappropriate his attitude was, but that never in his wildest dreams did he believe he would be convicted of something he didn't do. Incarcerated at the age of 18, Damien, who still identified himself as a Wiccan upon his conviction, is now 24 and claims to not follow any specific religion, although he has been studying Buddhism intensely for several years. Damien could be executed as early as May 5, 2000. He was recently married. He spends much of his time reading and writing to his wife. An excellent article and interview with Damien by Mara Leveritt can be found at http://www.arktimes.com/trial2.htm.
Damien has a new attorney, Ed Mallett of Houston, and Barry Scheck, a high-profile DNA expert who was involved with the O.J. Simpson trial, is also involved with the case; both attorneys are offering their services pro bono. Also working for free: Misskelley's attorney Dan Stidham, the only attorney from the original trial who is still active in the case, and Ron Lax, one of the original investigators. Generous donations to fund the legal process have been forthcoming, including some famous but anonymous donors. All three young men are appealing their convictions, hoping for new trials at the federal level. Damien's Rule 37 hearing in 1999 resulted in his appeal in the State of Arkansas being denied (by the same judge, David Burnett, who sentenced him to death). If approved, a federal habeus corpus trial could take place this summer.
Now 21, Jason Baldwin is a Christian whose spiritual mentor Steve Baker has helped him set up a college fund and make the most of his days behind bars. He is also reading a great deal and is said to have a particular love for Shakespeare.
Now 24, Jessie, like Damien and Jason, retains a close relationship with his family members. He is passionate about professional wrestling and tries to be optimistic about the future. All three young men enjoy receiving letters and their addresses-for those who wish to write to them- are to be found on The West Memphis Three Support Fund website and in the Witches' Voice "Issues, Protests and Concerns" pages.
Pagan Supporters Speak Out
While the sequel was being filmed, a fundraising event was held at 'Betwixt and Between', a pagan community center in Dallas, TX. The outstanding pagan band Velvet Hammer (now known as Dream Trybe) performed, donations were collected, and attendees were encouraged to share their feelings about the case. There is a brief scene of this event in Revelations, where several pagans speak their minds about how Wiccan principles connect to the issue central to this case. The lovely Nikki, former road manager for Velvet Hammer, offers her view of how the Wiccan Rede, the Law of Three, and her belief that justice will be served in the end. Another woman says that she believes Damien was convicted in part because he admitted to being Wiccan, and that she would fight for anyone's right to worship as they choose, be they Christian or pagan. Unfortunately the footage of Velvet Hammer's performance does not appear in the film. When I spoke with lead singer, Lynda, last November at Autumn Meet in Land o' Lakes, Florida, she explained the filmmakers thought the musical performance did not seem to fit in with the rest of the film. Bruce Sinofsky confirmed this, saying the footage of their performance looked and sounded great, and that he wished there had been a way to include it (We'll watch for the VH1 premiere, Bruce!). In fact, all of the film's musical soundtrack was donated by Metallica, as was the case with Paradise Lost,and it is a powerful backdrop of sound for the images of death, emotional anguish and despair which so often characterize this situation. But Metallica's music, which I have always found very evocative, is also seen as a source of hope and rejuvenation; at one point Jason's mother explains she dedicates the song,'Nothing Else Matters', to her son in prison.
Perhaps the most important development in this case, in terms of influencing public opinion and raising awareness, has been the founding of The West Memphis Three Support Fund. In Revelations, Mara Leveritt, one of the only Arkansas-based journalists who continues to question the legality of the convictions, is filmed at a meeting of the group and she asked them how it all began. Although an earlier support group was begun that lasted a few months, the cause to free the West Memphis Three was eventually spearheaded by three activists in Los Angeles, all three of whom work in the film industry: Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley and Burk Sauls. Bakken and Pashley tell Leverett on camera that they saw the film before it aired on HBO because they were working on the advertising campaign, and gave a tape to Sauls, who became immediately obsessed with the innocence of Damien, Jason and Jessie. All three began to research the case specifics and to learn more about forensics and the legal system, and, with the help of webmaster friend Max, the West Memphis Three Support Fund was born. The group also hosts an email discussion group which has members from around the world. Bakken, Pashley and Sauls appear throughout Revelations, shown at Damien's appeal in Arkansas, in their L.A. digs hosting an online chat with Damien, with Damien's and Jason's mothers at the taping of the "Leeza" show in Hollywood (the episode about the case never aired), and occasionally in front of news cameras. The group also contacted forensics expert Brent Turvey whose examination of the crime scene and photographic evidence reveal crucial details previously underplayed or ignored, including bite marks on the face of one of the victims, that were never introduced at trial. Revelations shows recent footage of the three young men in prison, which contrasts sharply with the teenagers who stood trial. Jessie, once a skittish, childlike boy who would not make eye contact in the courtroom, now speaks with greater confidence and earnestly protests his innocence, admitting he was "egged on" by the police. Jason, once a painfully shy, quiet teen of few words, is now articulate and forthright, and urges viewers to look at the evidence in the case.
But it is Damien who has undergone the most radical change, and he is the first to admit he has grown and learned a lot about himself. Footage from 1996, after Damien was repeatedly raped in prison before he filed a lawsuit against the state, shows the once-stocky teen to be reed-thin, pale, exhausted. This was also before Paradise Lost was widely shown. In 1998 and 1999, during the time of his appeal, Damien looks healthier, has short hair, new gold-rimmed glasses, and dresses in white, wearing a wooden bead necklace. But beyond his physical appearance, his demeanor has changed. No longer the arrogant, sarcastic teen many judged him to be in the first film, and apparently no longer the depressed, demoralized victim of assault, his face now radiates calm: peace, even. He speaks softly, his words thoughtful and measured. But he does sometimes speak passionately, as is evident during an online chat arranged by the support fund. Damien maintains his innocence and expresses frustration towards the legal system that let him down. He also has strong feelings about who he thinks actually committed the murders.
A Controversial Sequel
Footage shot for Paradise Lost, from 1995 and earlier, is shown in black and white, and this helps organize the complex structure of the film, which returns often to past events in order to draw parallels to current events. There is also a great deal of archival footage featuring media broadcasts, including Court TV programs and news segments, that indicate that the case is still a source of intense media scrutiny and reveals much of what has happened since the first film ended. Ongoing legal and family problems have plagued the families of both the victims and the convicted. Life in this rural community is harsh, many of its occupants poor, unemployed, and uneducated. While the families of the victims cooperated with the filmmaking process for Paradise Lost, some of them were displeased with the way they were portrayed as "trailer trash." Sinofsky and Berlinger insist they only filmed what they saw and in no way manipulated anything to make people look bad. Only one member of the victims' families agreed to be filmed again for the sequel: John Mark Byers, Christopher's stepfather.
Viewers of Paradise Lost will remember Byers for his impassioned speeches, his chameleon-like changes of hairstyle and dress, and his ubiquitous appearance before the documentary cameras, whether singing in church or mourning at his son's graveside. He repeatedly accuses Damien, Jason and Jessie of murder, and in one memorable scene, shoots at a pumpkin while invoking the names of the accused. Byers was briefly a suspect in the murders after he gave a blood-smeared knife to one of the documentary cameramen. The DNA on the knife matched his stepson, but because both had the same blood type this was deemed inconclusive evidence. Byers is still a spectacular fixture in the sequel, and his tendency to spew eerie hellfire-and-brimstone monologues, and to act out melodramatic scenarios, is a documentarian's dream. In a recent interview, Bruce Sinofsky agreed that no actor could play Byers as well as he plays himself: "People always wonder if we asked him to do any of these things but there is no way we could think this stuff up; we would simply ask what he wanted to do that day and follow him around." Berlinger agreed, saying "There is no question we will never film another character as interesting as John Mark Byers."
A Troubled Family
In 1996, Byers' wife Melissa died mysteriously of an apparent accidental drug overdose. Her bags were packed. She lay down for a nap and never awakened. In Revelations, Byers is filmed taking a lie detector test in which he refers to a period of time "right after my wife was murdered." He talks with two friends about his frustration at not receiving a copy of the coroner's report. His wife's cause of death is still considered "undetermined."
Melissa's death is frought with other issues. She and her husband were also in the middle of criminal proceedings against them for grand larceny, accused of stealing $20,000 worth of antiques from a neighbor's home. Brent Turvey, the independent forensics investigator, indicates he wants to take bite-mark impressions of Melissa. Damien, Jason and Jessie offered to give bite-mark impressions and they did not match the ones in the crime photos. John Mark Byers had his teeth surgically removed in 1997; interestingly, in the film he offers several explanations for how he lost them, and also says they were missing before the murders. John Mark Byers is currently serving an eight-year sentence for drug charges. He is eligible for parole later this year.
Viewers should be cautioned: for all of the graphic testimony and police video footage in Paradise Lost, there is a great deal more of such imagery in Revelations, including close-ups of the boys' mutilated bodies from both the crime scene and the autopsies. Some critics have said this is gratuitous and unnecessary, that it is disrespectful to the families of the victims. While I agree these images are disturbing, I think it is important to remind people of the horrendous nature of these crimes, and how important it is to bring the actual killer or killers to justice. Our society views the killing of children with special disgust; add sexual mutilation to that and the response is one of absolute horror. Even more horrifying is the possibility that a parent would do this to his own child. It is no less horrific to consider that an innocent young man will be put to death, or that two other young men will spend their lives behind bars, for crimes they did not commit.
What Lies Ahead
Federal appeals are pending. If they are turned down, Damien could face execution at any time. If you wish to learn more about this case, there are many sources of information. I recommend starting with Paradise Lost, which is available in most video stores, and can be ordered from the filmmakers. HBO will also be rebroadcasting the original film as they continue to show the sequel over the next few weeks.
Not everyone has cable (I don't either!), so find a friend who does and have a viewing party to watch the sequel.
Visit the website of the support fund at http://www.wm3.org; there you will find links to many articles, editorials and court documents, as well as information on how to offer your support to this cause, and how to contact Damien, Jason and Jessie. Most importantly, you will find addresses for writing letters to officials who will be hearing these appeals in the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Although there are now high-profile attorneys involved, it is still crucial to bring this case to the attention of the media. Raising awareness about this case is now more important than ever. Time is running out. The premiere of Revelations is an important opprtunity to rekindle interest in the plight of the West Memphis Three, and to ensure that whoever is responsible for the murders of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore is brought to justice.
Bruce Sinofsky's remarks about widespread support for the West Memphis Three are very telling: "Barry Scheck and the others are involved because of the film. Damien didn't think he had anyone acting as an advocate for him. He was going to give up his appeals and ask to be put to death. I think because of the support fund and the thousands of people who write to him and express concern and hope, it has made a big difference." Joe Berlinger, who is currently filming the Blair Witch Project sequel in Baltimore, says "I am looking forward to scaring everyone as much as possible with this sequel...it's unfortunate that I am scaring people a whole lot more with Revelations." He adds: "This happened in a very fundamentalist, bible-thumping part of the country where they preach every Sunday that the devil is out there--I hope this film has an effect on a national level, to wake people up to see what has happened."
Witches believe in the Law of Three: all we do is revisited upon us threefold. We believe everything happens for a reason, that hardship makes us strong and leads us to enlightenment...we believe that truth will always prevail. We believe no evil act goes unpunished, because performing an evil act inevitably brings evil back upon the perpetrator. We believe the same is true of good acts: that doing good, we will be rewarded. We also know that the circle of karma is not always completed in this lifetime. We therefore must choose to act, to set things in motion. Seeing injustice, we should speak. Witnessing tyranny, we should rebel. Confronted with ignorance, we should educate. Suspecting falsehood, we must seek truth. Truth. Truth.
Those who walk in love and truth will grow in honor and strength...a Witch friend of mine first said that...
aka Albion Summerisle Morrison
Media Coordinator, The Witches' Voice
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