On May 5, 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found next to a muddy creek in the wooded Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. A month later, three teenagers were arrested and accused of raping, mutilating and killing the boys.
Through graphic crime-scene footage, TV news clips and extensive original reporting, the America Undercover presentation PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS takes an insider's look at this notorious murder case -- and the town that was changed forever by it. This powerful verité documentary is directed, produced and edited by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the team responsible for the acclaimed 1992 feature film "Brother's Keeper."
The dark odyssey began with the tragic murders of Stephen Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, whose mutilated bodies were discovered in a shallow creek along Interstate 40 in West Memphis, Arkansas. The community demanded justice and, one month later, the police charged three teenagers with sacrificing the boys as part of a Satanic ritual. One of the suspects, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley, reportedly confessed to police that he had watched 18-year-old Damien Echols and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin choke, mutilate, rape and kill the children. While Misskelley denied taking part in the torture and killings, he admitted helping subdue one victim who tried to escape. His confession led authorities to decide that Misskelley would be tried separately before the other two.
During his trial, Misskelley spent most of his time with his head bowed. In jail, he called his girlfriend to share his latest sexual fantasy. Subsequently found guilty on all counts, Misskelley was sentenced to one life sentence (for Michael Moore, whom he'd prevented from escaping), and two 20-year sentences (for the other two victims). Later, he was offered a generous plea bargain in which the life sentence would be removed in exchange for his testimony against the other two defendants. However, he turned down the deal.
In light of Misskelley's decision not to testify in the second trial, the prosecutors concluded that the odds of convicting Echols and Baldwin were 50-50, even as the two maintained their innocence. Echols admitted reading books about occult sacrifice, but the police linked him to the crime solely on the basis of his black clothing, affinity for heavy-metal music, and antisocial demeanor. While the younger Baldwin had little to say, Echols talked openly about his mistrust of authority, and vowed to take the stand during the trial, a strategy rejected by Baldwin's lawyer.
As the second trial began, prosecutors brandished a serrated knife that police recovered from a lake next to Baldwin's house, and argued that Echols and Baldwin had boasted of the killings in front of two girls.
After a parade of expert witnesses, Echols took the stand and was grilled by the prosecution about his lifestyle and possible links to white-witch groups.
Late in the trial, the defense dropped a bombshell: Mark Byers, stepfather of one of the victims, had given the HBO film crew a knife with traces of blood on it. Tests from the knife indicated that the blood was consistent with both Byers and his stepson, and thus inconclusive. Although there were possible inconsistencies in Byers' testimony, the trial remained focused on the two boys.
In his summation, Baldwin's attorney admonished the jury not to believe Baldwin's "guilt by association" with Echols. As the jury deliberated, Echols received a surprise guest: his infant son, born to his girlfriend during his incarceration.
Ultimately, the jury convicted both boys. Echols was sentenced to die by lethal injection. Baldwin was sentenced to life without parole. All three are appealing their convictions.
Interviewed in jail, Echols is asked about his fate. "I kind of enjoy it," he muses, "because now, even after I die, people are gonna remember me forever. It'll be sort of like I'm the West Memphis bogeyman. Little kids will be looking under their bed before they go to bed -- Damien might be there."
PARADISE LOST is directed, produced and edited by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Robert Richman is the director of photography. Sheila Nevins is the executive producer for HBO.