Reproducing a Trial: Evidence and its Assessment in Paradise Lost
LAW ON THE SCREEN, Austin Sarat, Lawrence Douglas, Martha Merrill Umphrey, eds., Stanford University Press, 2005
48 Pages Posted: 7 Apr 2005
This essay offers a case study in the emerging area of law-and-film, examining in particular the epistemology of the legal documentary, a growing sub-genre of documentary films about particular trials. The essay focuses on a pair of recent critically-acclaimed documentary films: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. These films tell the story of three teenage boys who were convicted for the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, on the theory that they were members of a Satanic cult and had killed the boys as part of a cult ritual.
The focus of the essay is a close reading of the way that the films both construct and critique ideas of evidence and proof. The films quite overtly turn the viewer into a surrogate juror, inviting questions about the defendants' guilt; about the legitimacy of the trial process; and, perhaps most importantly, about what kinds of evidence ought appropriately to persuade. For example, the films suggest two implicit divides: between circumstantial evidence and direct evidence; and also, between character evidence and evidence that results directly from the commission of the crime. While Paradise Lost I privileges circumstantial evidence over direct and trace evidence over character evidence, the second film resorts extensively to character evidence to suggest the possible guilt of someone other than the defendant. Read together, I suggest that the two films vividly enact our cultural ambivalence about character evidence.
More generally, this essay explores the audience reception of the pair of films, and how they have provoked a subset of viewers to become involved and engaged by the case, even providing financial support to the defendants, participating in web discussion groups, holding benefit events, etc. This audience response shows both how, on occasion, legal documentary films can function as a kind of alternative appeals process, operating in parallel to the formal legal channels while trying to influence both the public's belief and the legal outcome.
Finally, the essay suggests a certain affinity between the trial process and documentary film. Both are elaborately staged and carefully produced dramas, and yet they somehow hide the fact of their constructed nature in plain sight. When successful, both trials and documentaries are understood by by viewers as a commentary on what really happened rather than merely as a commentary on the evidence presented. Both trials and documentaries thus invite ruminations on the structure of knowledge and the processes of its construction, and especially the relation between seeing and knowing and the complex connections between narrative and belief.
Keywords: Evidence, Criminal Law, Law & Film, Law & Humanities, Trials, False Confessions
JEL Classification: K14, K41
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation