Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Director Joe Berlinger, Damien Wayne Echols and director Bruce Sinofsky. (HBO Films, Bob Richman)

Bruce Sinofsky won't take credit for it - and he may not even believe it - but he's saved three lives by making movies.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, the documentary he and co-director Joe Berlinger released in 1996, made a powerful case that teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were railroaded by police and wrongly convicted of murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Echols was sentenced to death; Baldwin and Misskelley, to life in prison. And they'd still be there - Echols on death row, working through his appeals - if Berlinger and Sinofsky hadn't stayed on the story, revisiting the case in two more features.

"We were catalysts, for sure," he says over the phone. "If we hadn't been there and, and Joe and I hadn't made the film, I don't think they would have gotten the type of attention that eventually led to their freedom. But a lot of people rolled pennies to give them money, and a lot of people wrote to the governor and got very, very involved in this case."

While that was going on, Sinofsky and Berlinger were staying on top of the proceedings. Sinofsky says that decision was made fairly early on, after the end of the 1994 trial in neighbouring Jonesboro.

"There was a moment when we were leaving," he says, "and we could see Damien, and he raised his hand and waved to us. And my heart broke. When Joe and I got to the airport in Memphis to fly back to New York, we said, 'We feel these guys are innocent, so we've got to continue this. We've got to talk to HBO about it.' Even if they had said no, we would have [stayed with the case] on a personal level. But they didn't, and it ended up being an 18-year journey for us."

That's a hell of a commitment. But Sinofsky doesn't see it that way.

"We were free, you know? There's a big difference. You go home to your kids and your wife and your home and your animals and all that stuff. And then think of Damien, sitting in a box."

The success of the first Paradise Lost - which ran for months on HBO, exposing millions to the story of the West Memphis Three - prompted a 2000 sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which considered new evidence that arose after the trial that seemed to point to John Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.

And now, there's Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which takes us once again through the murders, the trial and the subsequent decade and a half of legal wrangling. Fortunately, this chapter has a happy ending; in the summer of 2011, after new forensic technologies cleared them of any involvement in the murders, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were allowed to plead guilty to the charges against them while maintaining their innocence, and were set free.

"There are some people that still probably believe that they're guilty," Sinofsky says, "and what can you do? I mean, that's the way any film or any situation should be; you're entitled to your opinion. [After] the first film, I'd say 20% of the audience thought that these three guys were guilty. But that changed over time, which is a blessing for those guys."

When they were making the original Paradise Lost, Berlinger and Sinofsky took the same approach they used in their lauded 1992 documentary Brother's Keeper, which looked at another stranger-than-fiction murder trial. They wanted to explore the ambiguities of the case, and use them to make the audience question their own expectations. Did the isolated, elderly Ward brothers really kill one of their own? Did the judicial system of Jonesboro, Arkansas decide three teenagers were Satanist murderers because they wore black clothes and listened to heavy metal music?

"We wanted the audience to be in the jury box," he says. "And it was fair for them to come up with any decision, whether it was guilt or innocence. But it was fair. We always tried, as much as we could, to have a pro-prosecutor line and a pro-defense line, you know, pros and cons. We would try to balance it as much as we could. But I think what bubbles to the top is that these guys didn't get a fair shake."

But by the time they were working on Paradise Lost 3, the filmmakers could no longer pretend they weren't disgusted by the miscarriage of justice that was unfolding in front of them.

"Sitting in that courtroom, we felt disgusted every day," he says. "Because it was clear that decision about their guilt or innocence had already been made by most people, including the judge and the prosecutors ... and, unfortunately, the jury. It was a polluted jury pool from the beginning. When you see the third film, I think it really comes to the top."

Something else that emerges is the shocking passage of time. In the footage from Paradise Lost, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are just kids; 17, 16 and 18 years old, respectively. Purgatory finds them nearly two decades later, as adults nearing middle age - having spent the entire interim in prison.

"We decided we were gonna go through all of the material that we filmed back in '93 and '94," Sinofsky says. "Every foot that we shot. And it was amazing. That juxtaposition of how they looked then - and even the feel of the film, as opposed to today's high-def video - really made you feel something about the difference between the past and the present. I think it was very effective."

I'll say. If events hadn't picked up their own momentum, this new film might have been enough to re-energize the activism for the cause. But Sinofsky, once again, demurs.

"The pressure on the Arkansas justice system - to give them a new trial, or at least a new evidentiary hearing - was just amazing," he says. "It's a little embarrassing to take too much credit for these guys finally getting out. I mean, we'll take some of it, but not a lot of it."

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is now available on DVD from eOne Films.