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the reality issue 2001
nothing else matters
by mia taylor, photography by grove pashley
from l.a. to arkansas.
how members of an audience became a part of the story

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.

sauls: 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.

Shambling, 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 switch. sauls: 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 right." bakken: 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 lawyers. sauls: 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°

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