In 2017, less than six years removed from serving eighteen years in an Arkansas prison, Jason Baldwin moved from Seattle to Austin to cofound Proclaim Justice—a nonprofit dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. “We fight for the hopelessly innocent,” Baldwin says. “Our focus is on cases that don’t necessarily have DNA components and require the good ol’ fashioned detective work.”
Baldwin himself knows what it is to be “hopelessly innocent.” Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr., and Baldwin were Arkansas teenagers when they were convicted of the grisly 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. They came to be known as the West Memphis Three, and their story was documented in a trio of HBO documentaries that began with 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The films spurred a prolonged and high-profile fight to exonerate all three men. In 2011, after new DNA evidence and potential juror misconduct emerged, all three signed on to Alford pleas—a settlement tool that allows defendants to proclaim their innocence but also admit that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Baldwin insisted that he only agreed to the plea because prosecutors stipulated that the offer was good only if all three men took it. While Baldwin was serving a life sentence, Echols was awaiting execution on Arkansas’s death row. Upon entering the pleas, all three were released from prison.
Elements of the West Memphis Three’s case, including their imprisonment and the plea deal, are at the heart of Baldwin’s appearance on the National Podcast of Texas. We also discuss the work Proclaim Justice has done in helping secure freedom for Daniel Villegas, who spent almost twenty years in Texas prisons on a life sentence stemming from a double murder, and Tim Howard, an Arkansas inmate convicted in a trio of 1998 murders for which he spent fifteen years on death row. The organization’s highest profile fundraising event yet is a recently announced February 6 benefit concert at Austin’s ACL Live at the Moody Theater that features headliner Gary Clark Jr. and a special appearance by the Dixie Chicks. Tickets and more information are available at acl-live.com.
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Three takeaways from our conversation:
1. The commonly held belief that “everyone in prison says they’re innocent” not only isn’t true, but it’s one of the primary roadblocks for reforming the justice system.
“That phrase is something passed around out here in free society, and it’s a lie that’s been spread to make it okay for us to say, ‘We don’t need to help those people because they all say they’re innocent.’ In reality, that’s not the case. Most of the innocent people in prison are scared to say they’re innocent because then you open yourself up for more ridicule, more abuse, more horrendous treatment, and they will never parole you if you say you’re innocent and you don’t admit to whatever it is they say you did and own remorse. But for an innocent person, that is impossible to do. And so it’s a catch-22 for those who are innocent and facing going in front of the parole board. After years of visitations and seeing their family go home without them, they ask, ‘What am I fighting for? No one believes I’m innocent.’ So do you give up your morality to go home? Or do you stay and continue to fight the good fight? The majority of people in prison are not innocent. They are guilty. And they’re usually guilty of preying on innocent people. And so if you’re in there with them, and you’re saying you’re innocent, you’re just basically saying, ‘Hey, pick on me.’ So it’s not like what people out here in free society think. No, everyone in prison is not innocent. However, if someone in prison or going into prison says they’re innocent, that took Herculean effort for them to say so. And we should take notice and pay attention to that and not just say we’re not going to help them because that’s what they all say. That’s the easy way out. And you never know, that innocent person could be you one day, and you would hope for and would need someone to believe in you and to fight in your corner.”
2. Baldwin believes that if not for the HBO documentaries, the West Memphis Three would still be in prison, and Arkansas would have likely executed Echols.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation. There’s no doubt about it. The documentary saved my life, saved Damien’s life, and saved Jessie’s life. The state of Arkansas was hoping to do like they do in so many other cases with poor people, with people who are powerless to defend themselves. They wanted to overwhelm us, convict us, condemn us, and sweep us under the rug. And no one would be the wiser. However, thanks to HBO’s Sheila Nevins, and filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, our trials were recorded in their entirety and then played back for the world to see in documentary fashion. They could look at what we went through and say, ‘Foul! That is wrong. Not on our shift, not on our watch. Let’s do something about it.’ That is the power of documentary.”
3. Baldwin has found that anger and hope don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
“Mine is righteous anger. And to be righteously angry at the system when it is not doing what we know it should be doing is healthy. So you channel that in positive manners that you hope will enact change in a better way that makes the system better for not just you, but for everybody. We’re all in this together. If we’re making it bad for somebody, we’re making it bad for us too. If we’re making life unbearable for a certain class of people, we’re creating misery in this world. So we need to make it better for everyone—all classes, all religions, all races, all countries … And hope is action. Hope is looking at the world the way it is with open eyes and recognizing what you’re dealing with but saying, ‘I’m not gonna let it beat me. I’m not gonna let it destroy me. And, a matter of fact, I’m going to help it make things better for everyone.’ Hope empowers me.”