by David Koon
Full house tonight at the Clinton School for a panel discussion featuring "Devil's Knot" author Mara Leveritt and the West Memphis Three's Jason Baldwin, sponsored by the Arkansas Times. On the agenda: a discussion of Leveritt's recent cover story, which makes the case for putting cameras in every courtroom in Arkansas to document proceedings. Times editor Lindsey Millar served as moderator for the event.
Lots more details about tonight's event — and a Kleenex-worthy surprise ending — on the jump...
Both Baldwin and Leveritt discussed how much Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols owe to what Leveritt called the "extraordinary, miraculous" circumstances by which the cameras of HBO filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were in the courtroom during the trials that convicted the three men. That footage was eventually used in the landmark documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," which spawned a worldwide groundswell of support. Baldwin, who called Sinofsky, Berlinger and Leveritt "heroes," said that if the trials hadn't been recorded, there would have been no movement to free the West Memphis Three, Echols would have been executed, and he and Misskelley would have eventually died in prison "and found ourselves in the prison cemetery."
Leveritt said that with Sir Peter Jackson's new documentary about the WM3 case, "West of Memphis," about to go into wide release at Christmas, and the film based on her book "Devil's Knot" being released next year, Arkansas is "in for another black eye."
"I think it's going to be: wham, wham, wham for the state of Arkansas, and we don't need it," she said. Leveritt said the state could lessen the blow by exonerating the three men and launching a new investigation into the murders, by putting cameras in the courtrooms to make sure all trials can be given proper scrutiny, and by asking judicial candidates in the future how they feel about cameras in court. "This is an opportunity for us to take the lead and show the nation we've learned something from this," Leveritt said.
Baldwin recalled for the crowd the first time he ever saw "Paradise Lost," saying that soon after the documentary aired on HBO in 1996, he was awakened at 2:30 a.m. one morning by an inmate from another barracks, who asked Baldwin if he trusted him. "Please don't let this be some kind of escape thing," Baldwin recalled thinking. "I don't want to get shot."
Baldwin said he was taken to a visitation room, where a TV and VCR had been set up. He was given a Mountain Dew, and then the film began to play. Baldwin said he hadn't know what the film was until that moment.
"It was very difficult to watch," Baldwin said. "To see my family, and the victims' families... to see myself not even knowing what's going to happen." Baldwin said that when the film was over, a friend who watched the film with him jumped up and punched him in the shoulder. "He said, 'J.B.! You're going home!' " Baldwin recalled. "Many, many years later, here I am."
Asked if he ever became jaded while waiting to be freed, Baldwin said he hadn't. "My spirit was always soaring, even though my body was going through hard times... there was no room for being jaded." Still, Baldwin briefly recalled the early days of his life in prison, when everyone thought of him as a triple child murderer instead of an innocent man. The inmates were all waiting on him, he said, resulting in "broken bones." But many eventually came to believe he was wrongfully convicted. "The day I got there," he said, "it was all curses and 'wish you were dead' and spitting and beatings." By the time he left, he said, it was all hugs and tears.
Baldwin said that he's focusing on his school work, and a new non-profit, Proclaim Justice, that works for exoneration for the wrongfully convicted. "There's a phrase that goes around. People say: 'Things happen for a reason,' " Baldwin said. "I believe that. But I also believe you can choose the reason."
Baldwin will speak before the Arkansas Bar Association at the Clinton School tomorrow at noon.
If you're interested, you can read most of the Arkansas Times' original coverage of the West Memphis Three case — including Bob Lancaster's 1994 cover story about the trials, which was the first reporting to ever cast doubt on whether the prosecutions were sound — at this link
UPDATE: This heartwarming bit of color, reported by Times' photographer Brian Chilson after the reporter had dashed away to go post:
After the talk, a crowd gathered around Jason, taking pictures, asking questions, taking more pictures, mostly trying to connect to him somehow. A man in a wide-brimmed hat stood patiently in the back, inching forward, waiting his turn. As he approached Jason, he whispered something to Jason's girlfriend, then turned to a beaming Jason, who stared incredulously back and exclaimed "DAD?!" as Charles Baldwin threw his arms around Jason and picked up the son he has not seen since the day of his release from prison that now long-ago August 11, 2011 in Jonesboro.
He set him back down as Jason held on and stared almost disbelieving before his father told him he loved him, then slowly parted ways. Jason looked on, fighting back a tear as he scratched his head and smiled.