The Thin Blue Line – Errol Morris’s documentary about Randall Dale Adams, the man wrongly convicted of murdering a Dallas policeman in 1976 – may be the only film in history instrumental in freeing an innocent man from death row. But if Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have their way, it won’t be the last. Berlinger and Sinofsky are the filmmakers behind the 1996 investigation of the Robin Hood Hills murders, Paradise Lost. Four years later, they return to the scene of the crime for the follow-up, Revelations.
The facts of the case are well known to those who have seen the first installment, but the sequel provides enough background information to catch up latecomers. In May 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a creek near West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols, a local teenager known for dressing in black and practicing the Wiccan religion, was arrested for the crime, along with his associates Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly. After a grueling ten-hour interrogation, Misskelly confessed to the crime and implicated Echols and Baldwin. Though no physical evidence tied the teenagers to the scene, and defense lawyers argued that Misskelly’s confession had been coerced, the three defendants were convicted of murder and Echols sentenced to death.
During the making of the original Paradise Lost, Mark Byers, the father of one of the dead boys, presented the filmmakers with a gift – a pocket knife speckled with dried blood. Berlinger and Sinofsky turned the knife over to the authorities as possible evidence in the Robin Hood Hills killings. Since then, a shroud of doubt has hung over Byers’s head. Many believe him to be involved in the murder of the three boys, and suspicions were heightened by the mysterious death of his wife in 1996.
The filmmakers returned to Arkansas to follow the appeals process and met with severely restricted access to the principals of the first film. Most of the original defense and prosecution teams refused interviews, and cameras were not allowed in court. The only family member of the three murdered children who agreed to appear again was – surprisingly – Mark Byers. The focus of the sequel thus shifts to the suspicions surrounding Byers and the emergence of an Internet support group called Free the West Memphis Three.
Revelations makes no bones about its agenda – clearly, Berlinger and Sinofsky believe Echols and his associates to be innocent (or at the very least, the victims of an unfair trial). As far as the guilt or innocence of Mark Byers is concerned, the filmmakers prove more than willing to give him enough rope to hang himself. Viewers of the film inclined to give Byers the benefit of the doubt will find him sabotaging himself at every turn. Whether he committed the murders remains an open question by the documentary’s end, but one thing is for sure: if creepiness was a crime, Mark Byers would be on death row today.
Byers hovers outside the courthouse like an angel of death, occasionally squabbling with the West Memphis Three supporters. He takes the camera crew to the scene of the crime and to his wife’s final resting place, staging more and more elaborate arias of grief and vengeance, as if he had never heard the adage about protesting too much. He volunteers for a polygraph test, during which he confesses that he is under the influence of five separate mood-altering drugs. His shambling appearance and doped-up demeanor give him the air of a walking cry for help.
At one point, during a discussion with two buddies about his troubles since the murders, Byers unexpectedly removes his teeth, claiming to have lost his real choppers in a fight. At first this smacks of smug redneck exploitation on the part of the filmmakers – as if they are building a case through sheer class prejudice. Later we learn the reason for including the scene: an expert brought in by the defense has found what appear to be bite marks in autopsy photographs of the victims. He mentions that the real killer may have since had his teeth removed in an effort to destroy evidence. When the West Memphis Three supporters (truth be told, a fairly creepy bunch in their own right) ask Byers if he would be willing to supply comparative bite marks to prove his innocence, he claims that his teeth have fallen out due to a side effect of medication. Still later, the real explanation emerges – Byers has had his teeth removed by an oral surgeon. Nothing could be more unsettling than to watch Byers’s credibility crumble even as Echols exhausts his appeals process and draws ever nearer to his date with lethal injection.
While Revelations suffers from the filmmakers’ frustrating lack of access, as well as a too self-referential bent (the original Paradise Lost is evoked multiple times, particularly by members of Free the West Memphis Three), it nonetheless proves a compelling piece of advocacy journalism and a disturbing portrait of a man who may or may not have gotten away with murder.