West Memphis Three Oscar documentary nod sparks row

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger (left) and Bruce Sinofsky (right) with West Memphis Three member Jason Baldwin

The parents of two of three boys who were murdered in 1993 in the US have said they are “disappointed” that a documentary about the killings has been nominated for an Oscar.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory tells of the murders of 8-year-olds Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers.

Todd and Diana Moore and Branch’s father and stepfather said it glorified the men convicted of the killings – the so-called West Memphis Three.

They called the film “a fraud”.

Expressing their “sadness and outrage”, the parents added, “This film should be exposed as a fraud, not rewarded with an Academy Award nomination,” in a three-page open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Moores had previously asked the Academy to not consider the film for a prize.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the third in the series of HBO documentaries following convicted Arkansas men Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley who have always maintained their innocence of the killings, which the prosecution asserted were part of a satanic ritual.

Alford plea

The first film in the series was screened in 1996 and immediately raised doubts about the case.

One of the issues the documentary questions is whether Stevie Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs – who co-signed the Moores’ letter along with Branch’s father – could have been the killer.

The three maintain their innocence though they pleaded guilty to win their freedom

The trio spent 18 years in prison, with Echols – who was 18 at the time – sentenced to death, and Baldwin and Misskelley – both aged 16 – sentenced to life imprisonment.

They were released last August after they pleaded guilty under a so-called Alford plea that allowed them to maintain their innocence while acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them.

Over the years, celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines joined the effort to free the men.

Christopher Byers’ family and Stevie Branch’s mother have also since come to believe the men are innocent.

The film’s director, Joe Berlinger, said he was sympathetic to the victims’ families.

“We believe that the pursuit of the truth has been the best way to honour the memories of the victims of this unimaginable crime and our hearts go out to those who are criticising us,” he said in an email to the Associated Press.

Berlinger said he thought he was making a film about guilty teenagers when he first went to West Memphis in 1994, but that spending eight months covering the case and watching the trials “convinced us that the West Memphis Three did not receive a fair trial”.

However the Moores said of the directors: “They now claim to be ‘searching for the real killers’ of our sons, but it seems unlikely they will be able to do so while directing movies, travelling the globe, and partying with rock stars.

“Our sons, meanwhile, remain dead in their graves.”

The Academy has so far not made a comment on the issue.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is nominated for best documentary feature along with Hell and Back Again, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, Pina and Undefeated.

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