The place: West Memphis, Arkansas. The date: 6 May 1993. When the sexually mutilated bodies of three eight-year-olds are found in a creek bed, this God-fearing community is shaken to the core. Eager for convictions, the police charge three local teens - - heavy-metal fans Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Wicca-dabbling "ringleader" Damien Echols - - with being Satanic cultists after extracting a dubious confession from mentally retarded Misskelley. Asked how strong the evidence is, a police officer boasts, "'On a scale of one to 10, it's an 11'." Except it's not...
Long before the Friedmans, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky proved the power of the camera lens in these two incendiary docs. With incredible access, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills follows the suspects and families of the victims as the trial unfolds. Rubbernecking cinema at its most exploitative, it's like watching an emotionally gruelling tennis match: Guilty. Innocent. Guilty. Innocent.
When the trio are convicted, Damien, a vain Marilyn Manson wannabe more concerned with his hair than the trial, suddenly finds himself on Death Row. But the suspicion that the real killer might be the stepfather of one of the victims - - John Mark Byers, a hulking, crocodile-tear-shedding 6ft 8 hillbilly with a habit of revisiting the crime scene - - remains strong.
Five years later, scab-picking sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations focuses on the filmmakers' chief suspect. As if in a grotesque Jerry Springer episode, Byers grandstands before the camera to protest his innocence. When new evidence suggests that bite marks on the victims don't match any of the three convicted suspects, we learn that Byers has mysteriously had his teeth pulled out (later, his wife dies from equally mysterious "undetermined" causes). Despite the revelations, the appeal of the "West Memphis Three" is quashed.
Caught somewhere between true crime sensationalism, trailer-park sociology and a crusading attempt to overturn a miscarriage of justice, the Paradise Lost films make up for what they lack in subtlety with a brutal sucker punch: "'I knew I was innocent!"' screams Byers as his polygraph test turns out favourably. Watch and decide for yourself.