‘Paradise’ found: After nearly 20 years, a documentary comes full circle

In the movies, the scene where the intrepid reporter/lawyer/medical examiner, after years of effort, finally clears the name of the wrongly convicted druggie/teen/single mom never rings true. It’s a cliche created in Hollywood for dramatic effect.

Except in the case of Paradise Lost, it’s true.

In 1996, HBO aired the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, a compelling real-life whodunnit about three teens seemingly railroaded by closed-minded Arkansas yokels for allegedly killing three young boys in 1993. The defendants mostly had alibis and no motives, but they didn’t “look” normal — they were Goth and had piercings and wore black. Murmurs spread of Satanism (because, apparently, that’s the natural consequence of listening to Marilyn Manson). The doc raised questions of their guilt, but the three men festered in prison, one on death row. A follow-up documentary in 2000 introduced more exculpatory evidence, but nothing happened.

The finale of the unintended trilogy, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, does the remarkable: It basically ties up all the questions, and even points audiences in the direction of the real killer. (It’s a doozy, especially if you’ve watched the other documentaries intently — as I have — for 15 years.)

It’s almost unsettling how everything comes full circle, both for the men — Damien Nichols, Jessie Miskelly and Jason Baldwin — and the documentarians. (You don’t need to have seen the previous films; a lot of 3 is recap.) There are the requisite “Where are they now?” updates about the defendants and other principals, and the legal wrangling to get courts to reexamine the flimsy evidence and flaws of due process that landed them in prison.

But what makes Paradise Lost 3 so exciting — and not always in a good way — is seeing how hardened the opinions of many of those who blamed the West Memphis Three have become, despite all proof to the contrary… and how some unexpected accusers have softened. It truly is a story of human growth and understanding. I don’t know how the filmmakers could have known it when they named the first film nearly two decades ago, but Paradise Lost really has become a tale of redemption, and if the resolution is imperfect, it is nevertheless more real for it. And it doesn’t require Matthew McConaghey in a courtroom to accomplish it.

— Arnold Wayne Jones

Four stars. Airs Jan. 12 on HBO.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens