For all our scienterrific advancements, we hairless hominids are never more than a local tragedy away from a live-action reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials. Nathaniel Rich, in the New York Review of Books:
In May 1993, Jason Baldwin was a skinny redheaded teenager whose favorite activities were listening to Metallica records and fishing behind the trailer where he lived with his mother. His cat, Charlie, would sit beside him; whenever he caught a fish, he fed it to Charlie. Baldwin was sixteen that year, but he looked no older than twelve. In an interview filmed at the time he appears shy and quiet, with an awkward, insecure smile that reveals a snaggletooth. A baggy orange prison jumper hangs like a blouse over his matchstick frame. On the table in front of him are a half-eaten Snickers bar and a plastic bottle of Mello Yello. He turns to the camera.
“I didn’t kill those three little boys,” says the little boy.
This interview appears near the beginning of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the first of three documentary films produced by HBO about the West Memphis Three saga—a twenty-year nightmare that has been the subject of a fourth documentary film, West of Memphis; half a dozen books; and tens of thousands of magazine, newspaper, and television features…
… We now know that false confessions tend to occur in cases involving defendants who have a low mental capacity and are ignorant of the law, and whose interrogators place the defendants under duress by threatening a harsh sentence or forcing them to doubt their own memory of events. Young people are at increased risk, as are people in situations of severe exhaustion or stress. And most false confessions are not recorded in their entirety. All of these factors were present in Misskelley’s case.
While legal scholars may have a more sophisticated understanding of false confessions than they did twenty years ago, that understanding has not reached every legal jurisdiction in America. Interviewed recently for West of Memphis, the original trial judge, David Burnett—who is portrayed in the films as a tragic buffoon, blinded by a toxic combination of hubris, stubbornness, and ignorance—refuses to consider the possibility that Misskelley might not have been telling the truth. “People don’t tend to confess to crimes that they didn’t commit,” he says, in the tone one might use if speaking to a two-year-old.
Were it not for HBO Films, there would be no “West Memphis Three”—only three convicted murderers, two serving life sentences and one, most likely, executed. This is not a credit to HBO as much as it is an indictment of the American justice system and one of the founding assumptions on which it stands…
Paradise Lost is proof that documentary films are subject to what in quantum physics is called the observer effect: by merely documenting the proceedings, the filmmakers decisively altered its trajectory. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations not only acknowledges this fact but capitalizes on it, with the result that the second film bears little resemblance in tone or approach to the first. It follows the efforts of a group of HBO subscribers from all over the country who are moved by Paradise Lost to start a support group for the West Memphis Three. Several of them create an advocacy website, which is the first example of what would become a common phenomenon—today practically every popular murder case leads to the formation of fanatical online communities, in which members argue vehemently for or against the conviction of, say, Casey Anthony or Amanda Knox….
One of the most powerful lessons of these films is how easily our opinions about a crime can be influenced by the manner in which information is presented to us. In the first film, for instance, Hobbs appears dazed and ruined by his stepson’s death. When the exact same footage appears in the third film, he looks like a murderer trying to hide a secret. John Mark Byers suffers an even more dramatic transformation—from a man deranged by grief, to a homicidal maniac, and back again. His behavior has not changed, only the context in which we view it. Once a person’s innocence is questioned, even the most innocuous behavior—or, in Hobbs’s case, a shifty eye or a nervous chuckle—can seem nefarious….