257,000 Jurors are Unanimous: Not Guilty
Part 2: Towards a Higher Emotional Truth
Austin Chronicle: Sinofsky & Berlinger
Paradise Lost is a brilliant piece of agitprop theater and — judging by the number of web sites it has spawned — it must be one of the most successful ever. Unlike other works of its genre, it manages to create an almost perfect illusion of objectivity. In an 1996 interview for Salon, on occasion of the film opening in movie theaters, Berlinger readily admits:
"I totally acknowledge that this film is very subjective. Hopefully, what the film is doing, and why I feel OK about the subjectivity, is that we're going for a higher emotional truth."The "higher emotional truth" the film makers are seeking remains elusive for a mere mortal such as I. Is it the revelation that church-going folks in the South are bigoted? Is it the discovery that confessions can be coerced? That courts can make mistakes? The moral dilemma of the death penalty, perhaps?
The film makers waste precious little time to come to the conclusion that Echols is innocent. Again, according to Berlinger:
"[…] within five minutes of talking to [Echols], not only did I feel he was innocent, but all that evil that I had projected on him washed away."
Echols' gift of persuasion may have been one of the reason why his counsel, Vat Price, allowed him to take the witness stand. Unfortunately for Echols, judge and jury aren't quite as easy to push over and his testimony leaves the door wide open for damaging evidence that, otherwise, would not be admissible. Rebutting Echols' assertion that he is non-violent, regardless of whether he is on medication or not, the prosecution brings up two earlier incidents that speak to Echols' propensity for violence: one that took place just 8-9 month before the murders in which he threatened his father that he is going to "eat him alive," another in which he tried to claw out the eyes of a classmate.
Of course, none of this footage survives the editing table. The fact that Crowley is a proponent of human sacrifices is cut out, lest the viewer gets the impression that this is the motive for the murders. Amazingly, it is Echols himself who volunteers that information — the "Cult Cop" didn't know. No mention anywhere in the documentary that Anton LaVey, "the person […] that I read a lot," is the author of the "Satanic Bible" and founder of the American Church of Satan.
The producers of Paradise Lost also don't want you to know about an "in camera" meeting between Judge David Burnett, defense attorneys, and prosecutors which could have ended the trial. After the evidence phase was over, the prosecution asked permission to present evidence that a necklace Echols was wearing during his arrest contained blood stains from two of the victims. After being admonished by the judge that the introduction of new evidence so late in the trial might result in a mistrial, prosecutors withdrew the request — certain that they could obtain a conviction without it.
Ironically, the fact that Berlinger and Sinofsky were in bed with the defense, may have hurt Echols more than it helped him (unless he always wanted to become a "cause celebre"). In a recent Rule 37 hearing before Judge Burnett, Echols' new lead counsel, Ed Mallet, argued that the dealings between the film makers and defense team had tainted his client's case: after all, Echols' counsel may have been more interested in looking good on camera than conducting a vigorous defense. We learn that the attorneys were negotiating with Creative Thinking Inc., the company hired by HBO to produce Paradise Lost, for the movie rights — even before the trial got underway. Price testified that the producers paid him $5,000 for two interviews with Echols, complaining that HBO still owes him for a third.
After days of poring over court documents, trial transcripts, browsing through hundreds of web pages, I still don't know with certainty whether Echols and, by implication, Baldwin and Misskelley, are guilty of the Robin Hood Hills child murders. However, I am more comfortable than ever to leave the decision where it belongs, in the hands of the trial jury and the Arkansas state courts.
What happens when you go on one of the many WM3 internet message boards and post something in support of the prosecution's point of view? Well, you'll never know unless you try it out:
I signed up with EZboard which claims to be the largest such board in the world, using "Fidel Castro" as my alias and "freeelian" as my password. To introduce myself to other members, I started a new thread in the "Welcome" section. The message was short and sweet, arguing that the jury convicted Echols based on the evidence presented in the trial, not just because he looked like a weirdo.
I visited back after 10 minutes and, already, five or six people had taken a look at my message. One day later, it was gone — deleted by a message board administrator. Freedom of speech, perhaps, but only if you believe in the right gospel!