After nearly 20 years behind bars, it was beginning to look like Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, also known as the West Memphis 3, might never get the justice that they deserve. But, as a result of an Alford plea (an arrangement where they would agree to plead guilty while asserting their innocence), they were allowed to walk free in August 2011. Having documented the entire history, from arrest to trial to conviction, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were finally able to add their release from prison to HBO Documentary Films’ Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the conclusion of the award-winning trilogy that spawned a worldwide movement to free the three men wrongly convicted of murdering three young children in West Memphis, Arkansas.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, co-director Bruce Sinofsky talked about the decision to stick with the case until the three men were finally released from prison, not knowing that would take 18 years, the frustration over learning the terms of that release, what he thinks of the other films that are set to be made on the subject, his hopes for what these three men make of their lives now, and that he would like to see them exonerated. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
BRUCE SINOFSKY: It was 18 years of interest, for us. We made the decision, literally at the airport going back, after Damien [Echols] and Jason [Baldwin] were convicted, that we were going to stick with this case, on a personal level, as well as a filmmaker level, and we did. It took a long time for them to get out, but it was something that was in our prayers, probably every week or so.
How frustrating was it to learn what the terms of their release would be, through the Alford plea?
SINOFSKY: The state of Arkansas should be completely embarrassed. I know that, with the evidentiary hearing that would have happened, this past December, these guys would have gotten new trials. I think the last thing that the state wanted was barrels and barrels of egg on their face, and that certainly was what was going to happen, if they were given new trials. This was an easy solution for them, that’s going to let them sleep at night, maybe, but I don’t think they have any regrets. I think they took they back alley way to get them out of their hair.
Since you went into making these documentaries, believing what everybody else did initially, when they heard about this case, which was that these teenagers were guilty of this crime, what was that journey for you, in changing your opinion about them once you learned what had really happened?
SINOFSKY: It was about keeping your eyes open and your ears open. When we first went down there, we were mostly meeting the police, the prosecutors and the families of the victims. Of course, they’re going to want to say that these guys are guilty, and we took that at face value. We were there thinking that they may have done it, based on an article that we read in the New York Times. But, when we got down there, things just didn’t seem so locked in. When we met the families of the arrested, there was one point of view. When we met their attorneys, there was another one. When we met them, especially Damien and Jason, Joe [Berlinger] and I started to have some really severe doubts, as to whether they actually were involved. And then, when you got into the trials, that were like a circus, it made it impossible for me to believe that these guys were guilty, based on what I heard in the courtroom.
Was it surprising to you that many of the individuals that had originally been convinced of their guilt, started changing their opinions, over the years?
SINOFSKY: You have to remember that the emotions of the community, and all of Arkansas, was rabid about these guys, that they were devil-worshippers and Satanic, and all of that. As things changed gradually, and as people took the time to go to the websites that had lots of information that they may not have been aware of, opinions changed. There were only 100 people or so in the courtrooms for each trial, and two of them were Joe and I. We were there, from the beginning. So, it probably became more palpable for people to get more information, and then have some doubts that maybe they didn’t do it, and that, at worst for them, they should get new trials.
That’s what I think was permeating people’s attitudes, over the last 17 years. They were getting more and more information, and it wasn’t just the newspaper or the television media, insisting that these guys were guilty. Attitudes changed with all the people that thought they were guilty as sin, back then, including parents of the victims. I never would have thought that Mark Byers would, all of a sudden, be on their side, based on just that scene of him at the dump site or the crime site, where he was going to basically piss on their graves. The victims are your family, so you can be as angry as you can possibly be. I don’t blame anybody, certainly not the Moore family, for thinking that these guys did it. I can understand that. God forbid, something like that ever happened to me, I would probably feel the same way. It’s tough.
One of the really remarkable things about these films is really seeing the difference in Damien, Jason and Jessie, over the years. In what ways did you see this experience most affect them, and having spent time with them, what are you hopes for where they go now?
SINOFSKY: Oh, yeah. I think Jessie [Misskelley] will get back to the life that he had before, in West Memphis and Marion, Arkansas, where he lives. He’s not the brightest bulb. He’s a great guy, but he’s not somebody who’s going to spend his weekends reading. He’s more likely to be watching wrestling. But, Jason [Baldwin] is going back to school on April 2nd, and he wants to be an attorney. He wants to be involved in law, so he can help people like himself, and I think that’s amazing. Damien [Echols] is a very bright guy. He writes well. I think he’ll do extremely well, out. That makes me very happy because the thought of him, either being killed by the state or spending another 10 years on death row, was devastating. Somebody of his intellect and worth shouldn’t be so wasted. They also have to deal with the differences in the world that we live in, between 1994 and 2012. It’s radically different.
What’s it like to see other documentaries and films being done now, or do you feel that it’s important to keep shedding light on what happened?
SINOFSKY: On a personal level, yeah. I don’t think Joe [Berlinger] and I are going to make Paradise Lost 4. The others that are doing features films or other documentaries, I think it’s fine. If ultimately these three guys are exonerated from the crime, and these films help that, great. I don’t take any deference to the fact that Amy Berg and Peter Jackson have a documentary (West of Memphis) that’s coming out, or a feature film (Devil’s Knot) comes out in a couple of years, if it helps them, great. I don’t feel like we own the subject or the storyline. Do I think that we made the best films? Yeah, I probably do. Certainly the first film, where we had the most incredible access that you could possibly have. But, if others can do some good for them, then great. I want them to be exonerated. I don’t want them to have to answer for this crime that they didn’t do, for the rest of their lives. I want them to feel that they are free, which would be great.
When you do something like this, that makes such an impact on people and yourself, does it affect where you want to go next with your career and the things you want to do?
SINOFSKY: I don’t know about that. It’s always about subject matter. If it’s something that’s really interesting, I’d love to do that. But, I’m also at a point where I’ve been working in the business since 1977. So, 35 years in, I’m looking on the other side of filmmaking and thinking about possibly moving to France with my wife and our two youngest kids. Life goes on beyond filmmaking. I’ve done well, I think. But, if the next subject pops up and it’s something really of interest to me, I’m ready to go. I’m not looking for another crime film or a music film, per se. It’s all about subject.