March 29, 2013 3 Comments
Jason Baldwin spent more than half of his life in prison before he was released in August of 2011.In June of 1993, he was charged with the murders of three 8-year-old boys – Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers – in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenagers were eventually tried in connection with the homicides. Jessie Misskelley was the first to receive a trial that resulted in a conviction. Jason subsequently stood trial with his best friend, Damien Echols, in 1994. Jason received life without parole, while Damien was given the death penalty.
In the nearly two decades since the murders occurred, the three have fought a seemingly uphill battle in the courts to prove their innocence. DNA testing has helped to support these claims in that none of the three convicted match DNA obtained from the crime scene.
The story behind their conviction and fight for freedom is one that has captivated countless people. However, the events that have taken place since their release and the steps each have taken to rebuild their lives is just as interesting. A quick look at the past of one of these men, Jason Baldwin, sheds some light on his most recent endeavors to raise awareness about juvenile justice and wrongful convictions.
Life in Prison
Jason was 16-years-old when he was convicted and sent to prison, presumably for the rest of his life. After his trial and transfer to prison, Jason spent two months on the diagnostic unit because officials felt it was the safest place for him given his young age and the nature of his conviction. “The administration feared I wouldn’t survive,” he told me during an interview. “They tried to get me to sign up for the suicide prevention unit.” Jason declined and opted to move on to the Varner Unit.
Jason’s initial experiences, as a teenager in prison, contrasted sharply with how he remembers it just prior to his release. When he first began serving his sentence he was the target of significant violence. “I’ve had my skull shattered,” he recalled, “…My collar bone broken.” He had to learn to adapt to the volatile conditions in the adult prison system quickly. “I just tried to treat everyone with respect,” he explained. “But I stood my ground and didn’t take any crap from anybody.”
The light at the end of the tunnel for Jason was the documentary film release of Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996. Jason believes that Paradise Lost helped to corroborate what he had been expressing to those around him since his arrest – that he was innocent of the triple homicides for which he was convicted. The film’s release marked a turning point for Jason by changing the way people viewed him inside and outside of prison. The movie also sparked the movement that would eventually lead to the release of all three – who became known collectively as the West Memphis Three.
In prison Jason encountered others who were sentenced as juveniles and given life without parole. He came to understand the complexities of the prison system – especially as it pertained to the incarceration of youth and the imprisonment of those wrongfully convicted.
I asked Jason what he thought about life without parole sentencing for those who are innocent of the crime as well as those who did in fact have involvement. “It does not matter the length of the sentence when you condemn any person for a crime they did not commit,” he said in response. “One moment of incarceration is too long for the innocent.”
Jason then turned his attention to the matter of juvenile life without parole in general. “I was raised with lifers. I would personally love to see many of these guys granted their second chance at living free.” He then added, “On the flip side I’ve met people who I believe are not ready to live in free society. That is not to say that the future won’t bring change for them as well…there are those that I feel deserving and others not at this juncture for that second chance.”
Immediately after Jason’s release he and Damien went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Marked Tree, Arkansas to get a state ID. The following day, he and others traveled to Washington with Eddie Vedder and stayed in his beach house. He quickly took a liking to the Washington area and has remained there since. He lives with his girlfriend, Holly Ballard, whom he met while he was incarcerated. She learned of his case after reading Mara Leveritt’s book, Devil’s Knot.
The two now spend time together doing what they both enjoy, such as riding bikes and watching movies. Jason has also caught up on some of the things he missed out on while he was in prison, such as learning to drive a car.
Jason, Damien, and Jessie’s release from prison was a dramatic and controversial event. Jason was initially reluctant to take the Alford Plea because he wanted the opportunity to achieve exoneration and clear his name. Even now – nearly two years after the agreement was signed – Jason acknowledges that it has complicated exoneration efforts. “It’s tricky now,” he said. He still remains hopeful in this regard though. “That’s where all these films come into play. They put pressure on all the people in Arkansas to do the right thing.”
While discussing the present status of Jason’s case, I asked if he had an opinion as to who may have perpetrated the crimes. He told me that he did not know who committed the murders. Like so many people personally touched by the tragedy, Jason would like definitive answers. However, he was clear he would never want to make the mistake of accusing the wrong person or people. He maintains an open mind as new information continues to come to light about the murders that happened nearly twenty years ago.
After his release from prison, Jason eventually became involved in the film version of Mara Leveritt’s book, Devil’s Knot. He described approaching those in charge of putting the movie together because of concerns Damien had about the direction of the script. He met with Elizabeth Fowler and inquired about the approach they were taking with the film. She invited him to take a look at the script and recommend changes. Jason took her up on the offer and went on to become an executive producer of the film.
Jason described the film version of Devil’s Knot as a broader view of what happened to West Memphis when the murders took place. It stars Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, among others. Jason said the film shows “how a community can be so hurt that they will sacrifice innocence.” He talked about the experience of being on the film set with Pam Hobbs, the mother of Steven Branch. He was impressed with the love and respect those working on the film paid to her, saying that it was comforting to see the healing she experienced as a result. He described the work as “one of the greatest things I have done or experienced in my life.”
The film is scheduled for release toward the end of this year.
Since his release, Jason has maintained a balance between building a new life outside of prison and his sense of commitment to helping others. He has been attending college on a scholarship established through Eddie Vedder’s Vitalogy Foundation. He is close to earning his associate’s degree and plans to continue his education and obtain a bachelor’s degree at the local university.
In 2012, Jason was invited by an organization to attend the oral hearings before the United States Supreme Court for Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama. He gave a speech at a luncheon that took place afterward. Months later the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling that struck down life without parole as a mandatory sentence. Though juveniles may still receive life without parole sentences, the courts are now required to use discretion. Judges must consider potentially mitigating factors such as a person’s age at the time of the crime and degree of involvement.
On February 5th of 2013, Jason testified in support of Washington House Bill 1338. The bill proposed changes to the state’s approach to the long-term sentencing of juveniles in the system. Jason began his speech with the following: “My name is Charles Jason Baldwin and at the age of 16 I was tried and wrongfully convicted for three counts of capital murder in the state of Arkansas. Facing the death penalty, I was instead given life without the possibility of parole. Both of these sentences present the harrowing aspect of dying in prison, which is unfathomable to a juvenile who should have his whole life ahead of him. In the end I would serve more than 18 years of that sentence – more than fifty percent of my life – before finally being released.”
During his testimony he touched on some of his experiences in prison and how he made a conscious decision to go into that environment with an open mind. This enabled him to see the people he was incarcerated with as human beings. He also noted how he personally observed the growth of those sentenced to life without parole during his time as substance abuse counselor and GED teacher. “I can list a great number of these individuals whom I believe are redeemable and deserve a second chance.”
Jason closed his testimony by saying he made a promise to those he was incarcerated with that he would not forget them. “Today I’m here to keep that promise. For the remorseful inmate who has turned his life around, I say that we must grant this person mercy. We prove in doing so that life cannot be disregarded or thrown away. All life is sacred and worth a second chance for those who honestly seek it. This is possibly the greatest lesson I learned as a former inmate, serving juvenile life without the possibility of parole.”
Most recently, Jason co-founded a new organization known as Proclaim Justice. I asked him to provide some insight into the mission of the organization and how it came about. “Proclaim Justice was put together in an effort to prevent and prevail over wrongful convictions,” he began. “Injustice occurs everywhere in the world. It is a complicated issue, the factors of which can range from shoddy policy work to downright abuse of power.” He explained that he was fortunate because HBO filmed his trials, providing the world with an intimate view of the trials and convictions. Without the documentary, no one would have had the opportunity to view “the surrounding atmosphere that contributed to that injustice.”
Jason, Damien, and Jessie were heavily scrutinized by local media covering the trials, but Paradise Lost was a powerful reminder that the media may also help to compel people to take action in the face of perceived injustice. Armed with this knowledge, John Hardin who has extensive experience in media relations, approached Jason about founding an organization that would focus on bringing attention to specific cases of injustice. “We believe that by bringing awareness to the other side of cases where there is injustice that discussions can be made to correct and prevent these wrongs,” Jason said of the organization’s objectives.
I interviewed John about the organization and his decision to partner with Jason. John described Jason to me as “activist-minded”. He went on to say, “I know he’s got a passion for working the rest of his life to help people who are in the same situation he was in.”
Though Proclaim Justice is still in its beginning stages, the organization has already signed on to help two people incarcerated within the Arkansas prison system, such as Daniel Risher and Tim Howard. John has also been assisting an organization known as Centurion Ministries with the case of Benjamine Spencer. Following Spencer’s conviction in relation to a 1987 murder, a judge declared during a 2008 hearing that he was innocent. Three years later the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the judge’s finding. To date Spencer has served 26 years in Texas for a murder that many believe he did not commit.
John and Jason have high hopes for the organization, but recognize it will take a great deal of work to reach the goals they have established. Both seem fully committed to the cause, however.
Though it is hard to predict what is in store for Jason in the future, it seems he is on a unique and promising path. I was impressed with what Jason has already accomplished in the fairly short amount of time he has been released. If the past is any indicator, he will likely go on to achieve great things. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing the much-needed change he helps to ignite.
For more information about Proclaim Justice, click here to go to the organization’s site.