JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Burk Sauls, a founding member of the WM3 group.

Kathy Bakken, active member of the WM3 group.

Burk Sauls, speaking about the case on Court TV. Here an audience member turned expert can now feed information back into the circuit of culture.

Mark Byers, possibly involved as a perptrator, and Burk Sauls are being interviewed for a Court TV segment. The camera in the shot draws attention to the popular media’s process of constructing images that come to represent this case.

In another of his staged events, Mark Byers burns mock grave sites of the accused at the site of the murders.

It looks like Byers is standing in a ring of fire, his face aglow from the blaze, creating a satanic connotation. Like the star on the forehead, these images let the documentary present a complicated image of Byers and reinforce suspicion around his involvement in the murders.

Mark Byers hires an independent tester to administer a lie detector test to try to clear up any ongoing suspicion of his connection to the murders.

Hearing that he passed the test, Byers declares, “I knew I was innocent.” The filmmakers note that when he took the test, Byers was on a long list of prescription medications.

Byers removes his dentures during an argument with WM3 supporters to prove that his teeth prints cannot match the bite marks found on his stepson, Christoper’s body. However, after the first trial, he had all his teeth removed and dentures made and could never give a consistent rationale for this dental procedure.

WM3 supporters show the local media the collection of postcards received from around the world. They present the postcards to the judge as a sort of petition asking for a new trial and a new trial judge.

Indigent defense in the
United States

These films confront the monster of a class based justice system. The first trial took place during the O.J. Simpson trials and the contrast could not be more revealing. Director Joe Berlinger said,

Paradise Lost is the flip-side to O.J. — it’s poor man’s justice, when you can't afford a dream team. There was a ton of evidence to convict O.J. and he walked, and in this case three poor teens had a mountain of reasonable doubt and they were convicted” (Yabroff 1996).

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees all persons accused of a crime the right to counsel in their defense, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states must provide an attorney to any person accused of a crime (Spangenberg & Beeman 1995). This system has been left to individual states, who in many cases have allowed counties to both fund and oversee management of their public defender system. The result has been widespread disparities in the funding and organization of public defender systems. The systems are chronically underfunded, and case loads for public defenders consistently exceed state bar association guidelines, often by a factor of ten.

Examples include Wisconsin, where anyone earning more than $3000 annually is deemed able to afford a lawyer, resulting in 11,000 people who faced trial unrepresented in 2003 and Lake Charles, LA where two lawyers handle over 2500 felony and 4000 misdemeanor cases a year (Weinstein 2004). Regional disparities and rising caseloads have stressed a system that was established to provide a minimum of protection for a vulnerable population. Prior to 2002, Texas was one of four states that provided no state money for indigent defense; and in 2002, Arkansas had the lowest state and county per capita funding of indigent defense of any of twelve Southern States (Equal Justice Center, 2002). These statistics and the issues raised by the Paradise Lost films point to a spreading corrosion in our democracy that is predicated on equal treatment under the law.

The disparities posed by a patchwork indigent defense system are especially troubling when raised to the level of capital murder cases. The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org) works to overturn wrongful convictions and cites the exoneration of 110 death row inmates between 1992 and 2002 (Scheck & Neufeld 2002). This is a staggering statistic that reveals the holes in our class-based justice system. In addition, police and prosecutorial misconduct are two of the leading causes of wrongful conviction (www.
innocenceproject.org
) and two of the most visible elements in the Paradise Lost films. In the case of the West Memphis 3, it is not phantasms or specters of Satan that terrorize rural Arkansas, rather the aggressive incompetence of small town justice, starved of the resources that would bring reason and expertise to the underprivileged. Director Joe Berlinger noted this abuse after making the first film.

"The problem with many indigent death penalty cases is that when you cannot afford a dream team, when you're poor, in a lot of southern states there is no active public defender; it is the court’s discretion to assign a regular duty attorney. And they picked lawyers who were not up to the challenge, and that happens a lot. In death penalty cases where the prosecution wants to win, they pick out lawyers who don't have the requisite experience... None of these guys were ready for this” (Yabroff, 1996).

As a filmmaker watching this trial, Berlinger could see the monster of justice at work, feeding on the poor to serve the needs of career and a community is search of resolution.       

Conclusion

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly have all been in jail now for almost seven years. As of July 2003, their appeals are slowing, working their way through the justice system. Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch are still dead, the images of their mutilated bodies kept alive and replayed through the Paradise Lost films. This story is not over and the WM3 support group continues to raise money and awareness about this case. At the moment, there are no clear answers as to what happened on the night of May 5th, 1993. But the two Paradise Lost films have shed light on what has happened to the people caught up in the heinous crimes that took place that night.

The video tape box cover to Paradise Lost features the teaser,

“Witchcraft or witchhunt? In some places, dressing in black can get you arrested, just ask Damien…”

This lure for attention invokes the curiosity of horror, the voyeuristic fascination of seeing someone else caught in the jaws of a justice system gone wrong, cornered by a modern day torch bearing mob out to cleanse the town of “evil.” In late 20th century United States, that mob has been condensed to a few state employees, a prosecutor’s office, a judge and popular opinion that is often driven by a media that is quick to convict and imbricated in the circulation of monstrous discourses. Yet this mob operates within a broader system that allows marginalized populations to be (mis)represented by public defenders who are under paid and under staffed, while those with power and privilege avoid jail or even courtrooms.

In this case, the private money of HBO came with the strings of access and the double-edged power of representation, creating a hybridized neo-liberal public/private trial where the camera became both a shining light in the molding  darkness of small town Arkansas and a paparazzi flash, stealing “authentic” images and casting them into the ravenous maw that is the entertainment industry. Audience action and reaction to the films have prevented this from becoming another forgotten case of (in)justice, preventing Damien and the others from falling victim to a tradition of 15 minutes of fame. As Ingebretsen (2001) reminds us, “Monsters must be analyzed, fretted about, interpreted” (3).

In this case, the monster that is our judicial system demands our attention, calls for a broader discussion of the limits of a system that is not blind to economics but rather is slave to capital, always already subjugated to an obscured class system that dispenses “get out of jail free” cards with annual dividend checks. And if you don’t happen to have one of these cards and find yourself on the wrong side of the bars, you better look like a good Christian dressed in white because in George Bush and John Ashcroft’s United States, wearing black is only one of many signs that you are not with them, but against them. In post 9/11 United States, the horrors of a satanic panic have merged with the geopolitical fears of terrorism yielding a new breed of stereotyping, judicial excess and monstrous treatment of the vulnerable. Welcome to the new American Gothic. The horror show is us.                

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