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 [you can watch them for free here: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills / Paradise Lost 2: Revelations / Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory]—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. When watched consecutively, the Paradise Lost films have an effect similar to that of Michael Apted’s Up films, which revisit the same group of Britons every seven years. In both series, we see the principal characters age, shed their youthful naiveté, and pass through stages of cynicism and grief, before ultimately accepting their fate.
While Apted’s films are remarkable for the way they make visible the passage of time, however, the Paradise Lost films record an artificially imposed stasis. The lives of Baldwin and his two friends, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr., froze the moment they were arrested for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. When at last they were set free in 2011 they were like children again; the world was entirely new to them.
In one of the final scenes in West of Memphis, Baldwin, who has grown tall and gaunt, is taken on the afternoon of his release to a Memphis hotel room. He stares in wonder at a room-service salad. “There’s cheese in there,” he says, baffled; he’s never had a salad with cheese in it. He fidgets with the handle of a new rolling suitcase; he’s never owned a suitcase before. His mother appears at the door; “Mom!” he screams, and he’s again the little boy with the Mello Yello and the half-eaten Snickers bar.
That little boy, despite his obvious terror, had been able to empathize with his accusers. “I can see where they might think I was in a cult,” he said, in that 1993 interview, “because I wear Metallica T-shirts.” The belief that the murders must have been committed by members of a cult was the foundation on which the prosecution built its case. It was, at the time, the most conceivable explanation for the extraordinarily grotesque details of the crime scene, where the bodies of the three boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers were found naked, bound, mutilated, and submerged in a shallow gulley.1
The gulley ran through Robin Hood Hills, a four-acre patch of forest that lay between Interstate Highway 55 and Holiday Garden, the working-class subdivision where the victims lived. Each of the four documentary films begins with the same ghoulish crime scene footage: the corpses, as white and rigid as child mannequins, lifted delicately by investigators from the water and laid on the muddy bank. The three boys had last been seen before sunset on the previous night, May 5, riding bikes near the entrance to Robin Hood Hills. At 8 PM, John Mark Byers, Christopher’s stepfather, called the police to report his son missing. The next afternoon a boy’s sneaker was spotted floating in the gulley. An officer waded into the muddy water to retrieve it and his shoe became wedged beneath what he thought was a log. When he stumbled backward, his foot dislodged a corpse, which floated to the surface.
The fact that the victims had been stripped naked, with their ankles tied to their wrists behind their backs, suggested a sexual aspect to the crime. This interpretation seemed to be confirmed by the most horrific detail of all: Christopher’s scrotum, and the skin of his penis, had been removed.
What kind of maniac would commit an act so diabolical? As early as May 6, rumors began to circulate in West Memphis that the culprit was, in fact, the devil himself, operating through a band of his worshipers. In one of the first public comments about the case, Chief Inspector Gary W. Gitchell of the West Memphis Police Department suggested that the murders were caused by “cult activity.” The department assigned the investigation a case number that ended with “666”—a coincidence, claimed Gitchell, though later reports suggested it was not.
As several weeks passed and no suspect was apprehended, rumors of Satanic involvement assumed greater urgency. These rumors were taken to be true by the victims’ parents, particularly John Mark Byers, a buffoonish, boorish, and ultimately pathetic figure who plays a starring role in the Paradise Lost films, often addressing the camera in the histrionic cadence of a Baptist preacher. In the first film he paces the crime scene while frothing about “Satanic worship services” and “wild homosexual orgies”; in the second film he returns to give the West Memphis Three a symbolic burial, after which he lights their graves on fire. Todd Moore, Michael’s father, expresses the same sentiment, albeit in a less histrionic fashion. “I’m all for burning them at the stake, just like they did in Salem,” he says, perhaps unaware that the women executed at Salem did not, in fact, turn out to be witches.
Investigators asked Jerry Driver, a local juvenile officer and self-described “guru” of the occult, to compile a list of local kids involved in cult-related activities. At the top of Driver’s list was Damien Echols, an eighteen-year-old high school dropout who had been hospitalized for depression. Police interviewed boys who were known to be friends with Echols. One of these, a young man named Jessie Misskelley Jr., confessed to the crime, naming Echols the ringleader and Baldwin an accomplice. Investigators were relieved. When Jason Baldwin’s mother protested that he was innocent, an officer told her, “We’ve got a story that is very, very believable. It is so close to perfect that we have to believe it.” Belief always trumped logic in the prosecution of the case.