by Max Brantley
While claiming he knew nothing about the crime, he shared Americans' general confidence in their legal system. At first, he expected forensic science to clear him. Facing trial, he believed that its aim was to get at the truth. Even when he was convicted, he believed that higher courts would address such clear errors as his attorneys’ failure to present his alibi witnesses. Jason was, in a sense, “everyman.”
Dark Spell introduces readers to what Jason endured and learned. Weighing less than 120 pounds, he entered prison to face hardened criminals who saw him as both an easy target and a child-killer deserving to die. Jason did survive, though sometimes barely. But, as months dragged into years, he faced an even greater challenge: the state's relentless assault on his hopes for justice. His struggle to grow up, stay brave, and hold true to his values forms Dark Spell’s gritty but encouraging core. Yet this is more than a survival story.
After the West Memphis Three's extraordinary release in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled life sentences for minors unconstitutional. But how reasonable are the thousands of other life sentences courts routinely hand down? At what point does solitary confinement, such as Jason repeatedly suffered, become “cruel and unusual punishment”? As cases of prosecutor misconduct draw increasing national attention, why has Arkansas failed to examine irregularities in the West Memphis case? And how long will courts continue to deny cameras ready access to trials? Questions like these shadowed Jason's years in prison. He and the author hope that what he learned inside America's criminal justice system will propel a close examination of practices that still plague the West Memphis case—as well as many others.