Nominated for the 2011 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is an HBO documentary, and is, as the title would suggest, the third in a series of documentaries covering the story of the ‘West Memphis Three’. The story revolves around the chilling triple murder of three adolescents in 1993 in a small town in Arkansas and the subsequent trial and potential wrong conviction of three local teenagers.
Part three of the story does not just pick up where part two left off requiring the viewer to have seen the previous installments but rather it recaps the back story and trial using archive footage and interviews. After this recap the rest of the run time is given over to the events that have unfolded since part two was released in 2000 which effectively is the continuing appeals process and collection of evidence to try and exonerate the now 30-something men who are still incarcerated.
The original case caused a frenzy as one might expect in a small town and with the locals baying for blood, three teenagers suspected of having an unhealthy interest in the occult were swiftly rounded up, convicted and sentenced after a very questionable ‘confession’ from one of the three and some even more questionable ‘expert’ testimony during a trial seemingly lead by the media and popular consent. Three life sentences were handed down including a death sentence for the main suspect although the heavy media attention piqued the interest of many who felt that the case had been botched. Up stepped directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky to document the case and attempt to expose what many felt had been a miscarriage of justice.
As the men sit in prison protesting their innocence, lawyers funded primarily by donations do everything they can to get a re-trial coming up against significant obstacles such as only being allowed to petition the same judge who tried the original case who seems hell bent on dismissing every appeal lodged. After rounding up some of the finest technical experts in America over the last ten years, and having to debate statute with the judges of Arkansas just to be heard, an appeal is finally granted with a new judge in this latest installment.
Whilst the film never outwardly says that the men must be innocent and that this is an obvious case of a wrongful conviction, there is enough evidence to suggest that the incarcerated three are not the murderers. As you watch the years tick by, the frustration on behalf of the men as the viewer is almost unbearable and as the evidence mounts up and rational arguments are made, you can only sympathise with their plight. As with the previous two installments, there are up to date interviews with the men, two of which are intelligent and articulate, whilst the other, upon whom’s testimony the original convictions were based, has an IQ of 72.
What could have been just another crime related documentary by the numbers is anything but although for no especially outstanding reason than it is just expertly crafted and told. Some up to date interviews with the victims families are shown which make things all the more interesting as their opinions have shifted over the years. Indeed one of the victim’s step father in particular who had been seen in earlier installments ready to form a lynch mob now actively protests their innocence.
Rarely does a documentary provoke such emotion but this manages it simply with cold, hard facts never acting as judge and jury but leading everyone down the correct road to what you hope will be the right conclusion.