Television viewing tends to induce a deep passivity.
It is a narcotic escape from reality. A click of the remote wipes
forever from sight and memory anything disturbing, provocative or
even slightly irritating.
Even a documentary can seem "unreal", an
entertainment with plot, players, villains, and heroes. Rarely is
one moved to reshape the reality of a television spectacle.
But Kathy Bakken,
Burk Sauls and
Grove Pashley did
just that after viewing the HBO documentary Paradise Lost. They
founded the West Memphis 3 Support
Group. Says Sauls, "There are many people out there who saw
the HBO movie, and said, oh, that's terrible - what's for dinner?.
. . But this happened".
Just how did the lives of three media professionals
from Los Angeles become intimately intertwined with those of three
complete strangers in a maximum-security prison in Arkansas? It
starts in 1993. Three eight-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Michael
Moore, and Stevie Branch are found savagely mutilated and murdered
in a wooded area of West Memphis, Arkansas. The sickening crime
gains national attention, including that of documentary filmmakers
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Their film, Paradise Lost documents
the trial of the teenaged boys, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley,
and Jason Baldwin charged with the murders. We see them convicted
on the basis of the mentally retarded Misskelley's confession, a
confession riddled with inaccuracies and made in the final 45 minutes
of a twelve-hour interrogation. No physical evidence is ever presented
linking the suspects to the crime. The bulk of the prosecution's
case appears to be made up of vague suggestions of devil worship
and human sacrifice. In the end, all three are convicted. 17 year
old Misskelley and 16 year old Baldwin to life in prison, and 19
year old Echols to death by lethal injection.
In 1996, Bakken and Pashley, working for an advertising
agency, screened an advance copy of the documentary. Shaken by what
they saw, they passed it on to another friend, Burk Sauls, a writer
with a lifelong interest in the phenomenon of Satanic Panic.
Haunted by the thought that the wrong people may be in prison for
the crime, their response was immediate and has not wavered from
that day to this. Then, in 1998, HBO made a follow-up documentary,
Paradise Lost II: Revelations, prominently featuring the activities
of the West Memphis 3 support group. In a process Bakken likens
to crossing through the looking glass they entered into
the two dimensional world of the film, becoming its subject, trying
to rewrite the ending.
sauls: We couldn't
believe that nobody was freaking out about this. What was the evidence
against them? Black T-shirts and Stephen King novels. All the talk
about devil worship and satanic rituals... These boys had nothing
connecting them to the victims. bakken: It had been three years
since the trial: I was actually shocked they weren't out yet. sauls:
We couldn't find any information. There was nothing on the Internet.
We called people trying to find out what happened... nobody was
doing anything. Damien hadn't spoken to his lawyer in two years.
We said if no one's helping you, can we do anything? pashley:
We saw the film in March or April of 96, and went to West
Memphis in October. But in the meantime, Burk had struck up a good
correspondence with Damien. They were friends by then.
Speaking to all three together, each seems
to hold a complete picture of the complex case in their head, with
instant access to the most arcane details. Seamlessly, one picks
up the thread where the last leaves off. They began their grassroots
effort with flyers they distributed in theaters where the documentary
played. They went on to create a website, wm3.org°,
a repository for as much official publicly available
information on the case as they can gather, as well as updates on
various appeals and hearings.
They're not the only out-of-towners taking an interest
in the case. They're not even the most famous. Metallica, supplied
the soundtrack to both films (and the title of this article) after
hearing the boys were condemned partly for their affinity for heavy
metal, and a benefit CD featuring Eddie Vedder, L7, Steve Earle
and others was recently released. But Bakken, Sauls and Pashley
are the most ardent and committed of supporters.
I put about as much time into this as I put into what is left of
my career. bakken: We
have writing, photography and design. Without one of the points
in the triangle, there would be a big imbalance. We're packaging
savvy. We know the value of image. sauls: Our website gets 1-2000
hits a day. The day after Revelations came out, we got about 75,000,
and about 30,000 the day after that. pashley:
Burk and Kathy got about 7,000 emails each, I had about 5,000. bakken:
About 99% were positive... whenever you get hate mail, it's always
anonymous, and everything is misspelled. sauls: It says things like,
you're going to burn in hell with your master, Satan. They told
Kathy she's a bleached blonde and she needs a nose job. bakken:
They're guilty because I need a nose job. sauls:
Why are people afraid of our website? Gary Gitchell (the retired
chief investigator on the original case) says "these people
from California don't know anything about the case, and their website
has inaccuracies and fabrications." bakken:
We've always gotten our information right from the evidence room
or from the lawyers. We don't print rumors. sauls:
They say we're hiding facts, not telling the whole story. We say,
then give us the whole story. If you've got something that shows
these guys are guilty, please tell us, then we cannot be broke anymore.
We can have our lives back. pashley:
We want people to come away from our website and just keep talking
about the case. Keep spreading the word.
In a dramatic twist, they themselves were responsible
for startling new evidence coming light. In a subplot we watch unfold
in Revelations, Bakken asks criminal profiler Brent Turvey
to take a look at the evidence in the case. He concludes from autopsy
photos that there is a bite mark on the face of one child, one that
has never been identified as such. A bite mark, he says, is as distinct
an identifier as a fingerprint. Bite impressions are taken from
Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin, and there is no match. It is explosive,
potentially exculpatory evidence. But in the course of new hearings,
despite expert testimony, the judge rules that there is no bite
mark. Still, the evidence is now a matter of public record, and
may yet prove crucial.
This new information, along with the mysterious
death of Melissa Byers, mother of Christopher Byers, and wife of
John Mark Byers, led HBO to commission the 1999 follow-up to Paradise
Lost. About halfway into the film comes an unforgettable moment
as a 6' ft. 8" John Mark Byers, stepfather of murdered Christopher
Byers, confronts Bakken, Sauls and Pashley as they sit on the courthouse
steps in West Memphis. They challenge him to provide a dental impression,
as Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley have done. He answers by yanking
out his dentures and thrusting them out defiantly, trailing a great
streamer of drool. It happens too quickly to allow you to look away.
hulking, charming, blustering, and never at a loss for a soliloquy,
Byers is a character Faulkner might have dreamed up. The first film
raises questions about some of his bizarre behavior, and there are
suggestions that he himself may have had something to do with the
murders. Mark Byers is a half-grotesque, half-pathetic spectacle
that you can't take your eyes off of. pashley:
The confrontation with Byers was a surprise. We didn't plan that
at all. That big scene of us on the steps... you only saw five minutes.
We were there for 45 minutes with him. I thought, what are we doing?
Should we be doing this? But in hindsight, I'm sure glad we did.
We brought up some good questions and we caught him lying. bakken:
Everyone says we're making him look guilty Byers is on camera making
himself look guilty...he always came after us. When we were leaving,
he said, "why don't you all come back? I'll go get some of
your favorite beverage." He could turn it on and off like a
Like an actor. bakken:
He treated us as if, "you guys are all in on it, right? you
guys are acting too, right?" No, we're not. sauls:
One time he made a nasty comment about Kathy on camera, then once
they were gone, he comes back, takes both of her hands, and says,
"I'm so sorry about what I said. I didn't mean it. I know you
are good people. You come out here to do something you believe is
What's weird is I felt sorry for him, and I thought, God, I hope
he's not guilty, cause despite myself I kinda like the guy. sauls:
He was in prison for several months recently. He just got out. And
he wrote me some letters and sent some poems. He wanted to write
a book and have me be his agent. bakken:
He's not a horrible writer either. He's not stupid.
They can speak tirelessly of "Damien,
Jason and Jessie", like favorite nephews, glowing over their
accomplishments and abilities, aching over their suffering. Sauls
and Pashley attended Echols' recent wedding in prison. sauls:
He could only have four people come in, and Damien chose me as one.
Grove came to try and get some photos, and at the last minute they
let him in. It was a really rare thing. It was the first Buddhist
wedding on death row. They allowed us to take in a disposable camera,
so Grove got photos. It was beautiful. Weird. bakken:
Jason is probably the most misrepresented in the films. Nowhere
do you get a sense of how sharp and quick and optimistic he is.
He's the brain. He's always been proactive in his case, trying to
find angles, writing to lawyers or legal organizations.
Barry Scheck's "Innocence Project"
is now involved in Damien's defense, and Echols is being represented
by Ed Mallett, one of the country's most preeminent death penalty
It's "The Crucible." It's a witch trial. They even use
the word witch. Except they intend to use lethal injection instead
of burning at the stake. bakken:
We can only hope that a miracle will happen and the Federal Court
will say "new trial" which is all we really want.
Some of the most touching letters are from people
who saw the first movie, and wrote to us after the second movie
saying, "you know, I watched that film, and I was very disturbed
and I did nothing. I'll never forgive myself for seeing that and
not doing anything about it."
see also http://www.wm3.org°