As the title suggests, Paradise Lost 3 is the third in a trilogy of films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for HBO. They have been telling the story of the West Memphis 3, three young men who were arrested for the brutal murders of three boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. The original documentary raised some questions about the investigation and prosecution of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.
This third film, which aired in January 2012 on HBO, captures somewhat of a miracle in the American justice system. After seventeen years in prison, we see them released in 2011. Echols was on death row. The conviction was based, as the film shows us, on flawed circumstantial evidence and a confession from Jessie Misskelley, who had an IQ of seventy-two. Using DNA testing which was not available in 1993, the three young men were found to be innocent of the crimes.
The film retraces how the prosecution portrayed the three young men as followers of a satanic cult, mostly because one of the men, Echols, wore black. What follows in the community of West Memphis, Arkansas is a wave of fear. In addition, the filmmakers have mentioned that they were resented in West Memphis as “Jew boys from New York.” Together, these things become a reflection on the fear of “the other.” The fear of the other leads to seeing justice in different ways. For some, they wanted the three young men to “burn in hell.” For others, seeing them in prison or on death row was sufficient.
As such, we tend to wear blinders when it comes to justice in this country. There are innocent people behind bars and we think that justice has been served. The story of the West Memphis 3 challenges us to seek justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). In light of viewing this film, it has occurred to me that this verse from Micah has been used a lot, yet has not been lived. What does it mean to seek justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God? Paradise Lost offers a glimpse into what it does not look like.
A community out for blood without truly understanding the details is not seeking justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God. To seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God is to see the world—to see others—as God sees them. We must remember that God’s justice is not our human (or even American) justice. We should approach justice with humility and respect.
The film was named Best Documentary by the National Board of Review.