American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” is unique among courtroom documentaries in that the filmmakers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, seem to have had complete access to both sides of the trial process, including private family meetings, conferences with lawyers, even sessions in the judge's chambers. The film opens with sad police video footage from the crime scene, showing the bodies as they were first discovered, and then reports how wild rumors swept the area about satanic rituals, animal sacrifice and blood drinking.
A month after the murders, an undersized 17-year-old named Jesse Misskelly, with an IQ of 72, testified that he had been present when Damien Wayne Echols, 18, and Jason Baldwin, 16, killed and mutilated the boys. Local prosecutors brought murder charges against the boys. In the courtroom, they make a poignant trio: Jesse, small and blinking; Jason, who does not testify and indeed hardly speaks except in soft, shy generalities, and Damien, intelligent and articulate, known locally for dressing in black, listening to heavy metal music and reading books on Wicca, or “white magic.” There is no significant physical evidence linking them to the crime, and the crime scene itself is without clues. Although one of the victims lost five pints of blood and the others bled freely, there is no blood at the murder site. The state's case is based on Jesse's testimony and hearsay; the defense argues that the statements made by Jesse contained only facts first supplied to him by the police, and there is a fascinating cross-examination in which a police transcript shows Jesse shifting the time of the crimes from morning to noon to after school to evening (when they actually occurred) under leading suggestions by police.
Jesse, whose trial was split off from the others, was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 40 years. He was offered a reduced sentence if he would testify at the trial of the other two teenagers, but refused. His mother says she told him she would be sitting right there in the courtroom, and didn't want to hear him lie.
At the trial of Damien and Jason, evidence of the satanic orientation of the murders is supplied by a state “expert occultist” who turns out to have his degrees from a mail-order university that did not require any classes or schoolwork. For the defense, a pathologist testifies that it would be so difficult to carry out the precise mutilations on one of the boys that he couldn't do it himself--not without the right scalpel, and certainly not in the dark or in muddy water.