Eighteen years and 78 days -- that’s how long the young men known as the West Memphis Three spent in prison for crimes they almost certainly didn’t commit.
Fifteen years after filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky brought the case to national attention with the first “Paradise Lost” film, “Purgatory” brings the saga to its bittersweet resolution.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were released from prison last August through a perverse bit of legal arcanum called an Alford plea -- their admission that prosecutors probably had enough evidence to convict them even though they still maintained their innocence. They were finally freed after being resentenced to time served.
The first “Paradise Lost,” subtitled “The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” presented evidence (or, more accurately, the prosecution’s lack thereof) that prompted a grassroots campaign to free the defendants.
“We were poverty-stricken white trash,” Echols, the only one originally sentenced to death, says in “Purgatory.” Without the earlier films, he adds, the state “would have murdered me and swept it under the rug.”
In 1993, three 8-year-old boys were found nude, hogtied and bludgeoned to death in the woods of West Memphis, Arkansas. Police suspicion fell almost immediately on a trio of local teenage misfits who wore black, listened to heavy metal and took an adolescent interest in the occult.
Berlinger and Sinofsky revisited the case in “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” which focused attention (misguidedly, it turns out) on a victim’s stepfather.
That suspect, John Mark Byers, came across as an angry, eccentric hillbilly who seemed a likelier villain than any of the baby-faced convicts. Byers makes a vivid return in “Purgatory,” only now he has joined celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks in advocating for the trio’s exoneration.
“Purgatory” presents an unflattering portrait of another victim’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, whose history of violence and deception raises more questions than it answers.
Neatly fashioned as a stand-alone film (you needn’t have seen the first two to follow along), “Purgatory” has an appeal beyond its true-crime roots. In footage from the early ‘90s, the West Memphis Three profess a heartbreaking optimism, and look almost as young as the boys they didn’t murder.
“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” airs Jan. 12 on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ****
Television audiences who know Anna Deavere Smith from her roles on “The West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie” can see another side of her -- actually numerous sides -- in PBS’s “Let Me Down Easy.”
Smith wowed theatergoers in the 1990s with her one-person plays in which she performed, verbatim, dialogue from interviews with participants in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights riots and the Los Angeles violence sparked by the beating of Rodney King.
“Let Me Down Easy,” taped for PBS’s “Great Performances” in Washington last February, tackles health care, illness and mortality -- big, sprawling subjects that the play doesn’t quite pull together.
The characters in “Let Me Down Easy,” all played by Smith, include doctors, patients, a Buddhist monk, Smith’s aunt and more than a few celebrities. If the cameras can’t disguise the play’s disjointedness, they certainly capture Smith’s charm and razor- sharp intelligence.
“Let Me Down Easy” airs Jan. 13 on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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