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Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

by Stan Ross, University of New South Wales School of Law (August 1998)

This is a unique and unusual film. What makes the documentary important is the amazing fact that the filmmakers were given the liberty to film everyone related to the cases. This included the accused and their family, the family of the victims, behind-the-scenes conferences with the lawyers and sessions between the lawyers and the judge. It is not unusual today to have filming in court, but I have not come across any documentary that gives detailed interviews with the accused and all the lawyers and allows filming of conferences of clients and their lawyers and those of lawyers and the judge in his chamber. Furthermore the film is brilliant in the way the filmmakers present so many different points of view.

This is an original HBO production, that although quite long (150 minutes), has little trouble in maintaining your interest. The documentary concerns two murder trials and was produced and edited by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. We are graphically shown scenes from the murders of three young boys near a small Arkansas town, who were sexually assaulted and mutilated. I found some of the scenes too vivid and the production is recommended only for a mature audience and not for those with weak stomachs.

The documentary is divided between the two trials. The first trial deals with a 17-year-old, Jesse Misskelly, who we are told, has an IQ of 72. Jesse was supposedly present at the scene of crime and witnessed Damien Echols, aged 18 and Jason Baldwin, aged 16, kill and mutilate the boys. Jesse appears to be mentally incompetent, not understanding what he is being asked, which is evident in that some of the facts of the confession are shown to be incorrect. This casts doubt on the value of his confession, which we are told, was obtained after 10 hours of questioning by the police. It thus seems unbelievable that he is found guilty and sentenced to 40 years.

Jesse is the only eyewitness to the crime. At the scene of the crime all the clues, including a large amount of blood lost by the victims, had been washed away. Thus the prosecution’s case against Echols and Baldwin is made more difficult because Jesse’s confession is not admissible at the second trial. The prosecutors rely on the testimony of two girls who overheard Echols saying he had killed the three boys and fibers from one of the victim’s clothes that were similar to fibers found on clothes in Echols home. Jesse refuses to testify, even though he is offered a lighter sentence in return, and the prosecution has to fall back on hearsay evidence and experts’ testimony. The fact that neither the prosecution nor the defense call the only eyewitness, Jesse, to testify reveals a glaring weakness in our system of justice. He was the witness nobody wanted to call.

Even with what appears to be little evidence the jury brings back capital murder convictions. What seems in the film to convince the jury is the prosecutions’s evidence that the Echols and Baldwin dress in black, listen to Metallica’s music and are involved in a satanic cult, the Wican religion. The filmmakers show a so-called expert (a mail order doctorate with no exams) giving evidence as to the power of the blood of young children and that this is an important in this form of worship. It appears from a number of the interviews that the whole community is preoccupied with Satan. Thus the reverberations of the Salem witch trials (recently portrayed in the film of The Crucible) are obvious.

The court-appointed lawyers in both cases are not shown in the most complimentary light. Even with a lack of evidence and a not too reliable confession, all three of the accused are found guilty. The defense lawyers appear to employ wrong strategies and appear to fail to elucidate certain essential information. They also seem to confuse the issues. Even with the supposedly poor defense one comes away with a feeling that there is reasonable doubt. My rational mind expected the jury to return a not guilty verdict because of the lack of evidence. My gut reaction was that they were guilty, but that is not how juries should make their decisions. The problem is many jurors do follow these gut reactions and do not carefully weigh up the evidence. Thus without substantial evidence the three are found of capital crime. Misskelly received 40 years, Baldwin life imprisonment and Echols the death sentence.

I left the documentary with a feeling that perhaps some of the depicted failure of defense counsel could be directed at the filmmakers who edited out essential legal material. My suspicions were confirmed in reading the appellate judgments of the two cases. One glaring omission was that the filmmakers do not show us anything from the penalty hearing in the Echols and Baldwin case. In Echols v State, 936 S.W.2d 509 (Ark. 1996), the Arkansas Supreme Court uses evidence from this hearing to support the view that the jury was correct in its decision. For example Echols’ psychologist testified on cross-examination that Echols had "an all powerful God-like image of himself." He admits the medical records show Echols said that there are two classes of people - wolves and sheep and wolves eat sheep. Echols also explains that by drinking blood of others he obtains more power and strength. The Court gives us information that makes the prosecutors’ expert witness on occultism highly qualified, while in the film he is shown to be poorly qualified. This conclusion is drawn from the fact that he has had 26 years of experience in dealing with former occult members, written four books on the subject and has been called as an expert witness in three state courts, one federal court and in courts in two foreign countries.

In Misskelly v State, 915 S.W.2d 702 (Ark. 1996) the Court rejects the arguments concerning lack of competence concerning the confession. It appears that only 4 hours had passed between Jesse being advised of his rights and his giving his first statement. The Court also says someone with a 72 IQ can still give a voluntary confession especially since Jesse was almost 18 when he signed the confession. I felt the Court did not adequately deal with the inaccurate facts in the confession and ignored the total time Jesse was questioned.

The documentary places the American justice system on trial and again the system appears to fail. Although the trial was moved 100 miles away from where it took place, the pre-trial media coverage must have influenced most, if not all of the jurors. The media, as in the OJ trial, appear to be irresponsible, but the filmmakers should also be held responsible for leaving out important material and by manipulating some of the evidence. They make a strong suggestion that the stepfather of one of the victims may be responsible for the crime because of the knife he gives them which has traces of the stepfather’s and this victim’s blood. Even with this criticism the documentary is an important development in looking at our criminal justice system with its unique coverage of all parties involved in the process. It would also be a very useful teaching tool for teachers of criminal procedure and effective in clinical programs.

Stan Ross teaches ethics at the University of New South Wales School of Law in Sydney, Australia.  He is the author of The Joke's on ... Lawyers (Federation Press, 1996), available via e-mail:

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