An Interview with the West Memphis Three's Jason Baldwin
I first laid eyes on Jason Baldwin back in 1996, when I first watched the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Chronicling the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and the terrifying trials that followed, the documentary captured 16-year-old Baldwin as he and two friends (18-year-old Damien Echols and 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley) found themselves swept up in a tornado of "satanic cult" hysteria that led to all three being convicted of murder. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; Echols was sentenced to death.
Paradise Lost was originally conceived as a straightforward record of the murders and trials, but as filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky got deeper into the case, they discovered something else: a complete lack of evidence tying Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley to the killings. In lieu of evidence, Arkansas prosecutors focused on the young men's shared appreciation of black T-shirts and heavy metal music, spinning a satanic ritual theory that seized the imagination of the hysterically grieving small town and resulted in three innocent men being convicted of murder.
Upon its release, Paradise Lost instigated a widespread movement to "free the West Memphis Three," involving everyone from lawyers to rock stars. A second HBO documentary, 2000's Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, continued the quest for justice, exposing more infuriating holes in the investigation and appeals process and, most horrifyingly, stumbling on a far more plausible alternate theory about the crime. Meanwhile, Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley remained in jail, with Echols's execution date creeping ever closer.
Jump forward to 2011, which brought the release of a third HBO documentary, the brilliant Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which takes the story places you cannot imagine and reveals the whole trilogy as a documentary masterwork, one that paints an impossibly deep portrait of the lengths humans will go to explain away and distance ourselves from evil. In August 2011, the West Memphis Three saga jumped off the screen and landed back in the courtroom, thanks to a deeply imperfect deal known as an Alford plea, which required Baldwin, Misskelley, and Echols to plead guilty to murder while maintaining their innocence (and forfeiting their right to sue the state for unlawful imprisonment or anything else). On August 19, 2011, all three men were sentenced to 18 years and 78 days—the amount of time they'd already served—and set free.
Which brings us to last week, when I had the profound pleasure of meeting Jason Baldwin face-to-face over lunch at the Elysian. All grown up, Baldwin looks like a perfect Northwesterner in his polar fleece, jeans, and stylish eyeglasses. The only thing distinguishing him from everyone else is his voice, which retains a sweet Arkansas drawl. In advance of SIFF's one-night screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (a fundraiser for the WM3 Freedom Fund, featuring a post-film Q&A with Baldwin), I asked him about his extraordinary life.
Having spent six and a half hours watching documentaries about your life, I feel like I know you. But of course I don't. What has it been like moving from the extreme isolation and deprivation of prison into a world where you're something of a celebrity?
I thank God for [Paradise Lost] every day, for all the support and everything. But it is kind of weird when you meet people—they already know you, and you feel like you should know them, but of course you don't.
You mean you didn't spend your 18 years in prison watching documentaries about the rest of us?
Ha! No. But it's a great opportunity to get to know these people who supported you in ways you couldn't dream of. That's one of my favorite things I've been doing since I've been free— finally meeting the people who wrote the letters, said the prayers, did so much hard work.
What happened when you were released? What were your first 24 hours of freedom like?
It was a whirlwind. I wasn't necessarily prepared to get out then. I had my mind set on December 5 [the date of the new evidentiary hearing]. It was a very mixed bag of feelings, because on one hand I was so angry and upset about the Alford plea—I hated that deal, I hated that plea, every aspect of it just stunk. I was upset that the best the state could do for us and for the mothers wanting justice for their murdered sons is a closed case with no pursuit of the real killer. But at the same time, there I was, being freed to go see my family, to go see people I love and care for, and this is something I've been hoping and dreaming for what felt like my entire life. So it was quite an experience. There was a big party in Memphis, full of supporters. I was up all night.
What brought you to Seattle?
I would never have dreamed that the first place I'd go after my release would be Seattle, in a private plane, with the lead singer of Pearl Jam. [Eddie Vedder] flew me out here on the understanding that I'd relax at his house and try to figure out where to go and what to do now. A few days after being out, Ed's wife introduced me to her friend in construction, and the next thing you know, I've got a job on a construction crew! It was awesome. The construction crew was working on his house, and I'm not a skilled construction guy, but just to work there and do the little things I did, to put so much of my love and gratitude into a little bit of the project, was great.
Had you heard Pearl Jam before your arrest in 1993?
Right before I got locked up, I did one of those Columbia House 12-cassettes-for-a-penny things. I had Nirvana's Nevermind, Pearl Jam's Ten, Alice in Chains' Dirt, and I got to listen to 'em all a few good times before my arrest.
What are your days like now?
Well, I'm in between quarters right now for school, so I'm pretty much enjoying myself. I got up at 4:30 this morning for a bike ride. A friend of mine from school, we're both between quarters, so we're trying to rack up as many bike miles as possible. Today we went over 90, that big long bridge, and yesterday we did the whole UW trail.
What are you studying?
I hope ultimately to enter law school, so right now I'm doing undergrad studies, getting everything I need to apply to law school knocked out and taken care of. This coming quarter you'll see me doing Spanish 1 and philosophy. I've been advised that philosophy is a good major to get into as a foundation for law.
Speaking of legal angles, what happens now? Is there still stuff to be done in regard to your wrongful conviction and imprisonment?
My attorneys are still diligently working on it. The state prosecutor says he's open to anything attorneys bring him that can shed some light on the case. I sincerely believe our evidentiary hearing would've resulted in all charges being dropped. But they were trying to kill Damien, so I took the plea. My attorneys are still working hard. Things are being done—work is being done—and we're hoping for the best outcome.
As a former inmate, is there something you think Americans should know about their justice system?
We have to get rid of the death penalty. So long as the justice system is a human endeavor, we can't guarantee that we won't make a mistake and put an innocent person on death row. Anyone can land there for nothing.
This weekend, I rewatched all the documentaries, and I got to see you go from a goofy little kid to a full-grown man. I also got to see you being fed many shovelsful of some of the worst shit life has to offer, which you seem to have processed in the most life-affirming way possible. It's kind of a consolation prize for all of us that you came out of this as such a clearheaded, empathetic, eloquent man.
I think at some point, all of us have to realize that life is something to be enjoyed, regardless of what came in that package that is "your life." I read the news, I hear about bad things that happen to good people all over the world, for no reason whatsoever, and not everyone gets help like I did. So you know, I always try to keep myself mindful and aware of that fact. When I greet the day, I realize what a true gift it is.