LITTLE ROCK — Jason Baldwin believes he would still be in prison serving a life sentence for capital murder if cameras had not been present at his trial.
Baldwin, 35, was convicted in 1994 along with Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. in the 1993 slayings of three young boys in West Memphis. The filming of their trials, and use of the footage in the HBO documentary “Paradise Lost” helped start an international movement to free the men by people who believed they were unjustly convicted.
Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley, who came to be known as the West Memphis Three, were freed last year in a controversial plea deal that allowed them to continue maintaining their innocence while pleading guilty to the killings. Echols had been sentenced to die and Baldwin and Misskelley had received life sentences.
Without the trial footage, “no one would have known of the terrible injustice that occurred,” Baldwin said Thursday during a panel discussion on cameras in the courtroom at the Clinton presidential library. “We would have just been forgotten, swept up under the rug. Damien would have been executed and Jessie and I would have just been left there to grow old and pass away and find ourselves in the prison cemetery.”
Baldwin was arrested on the last day of his sophomore year in high school in the deaths of second-graders Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore, whose bodies were found in a watery ditch. Prosecutors tried Echols and Baldwin together and claimed they and Misskelley, who was tried separately, killed the boys as part of a satanic ritual.
Baldwin, in Arkansas this week for the first time since he was freed from prison in August 2011, now lives in Seattle with his girlfriend, Holly Ballard, and is attending college with hopes of getting into law school. He and Ballard are executive producers of an upcoming movie about the West Memphis Three case, “Devil’s Knot,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
The movie is based on a book of the same name by Arkansas journalist Mara Leveritt, who joined Baldwin in the panel discussion Thursday. Leveritt said it was only because of the persistence of the “Paradise Lost” filmmakers that cameras were allowed at the West Memphis Three trials, and that the vast majority of state trials in Arkansas are conducted without cameras present. No federal trials are filmed, she said.
“My contention is that we should not have to rely on media interest in a sensational trial for that one-in-a-zillion trial that might end up being covered,” she said. “All trials should be covered. We’ve got easy technology now. We could easily (put trial videos) online.”
Leveritt urged people to ask judicial candidates whether they support cameras in the courtroom.
Asked about his relationships with Echols and Misskelley, Baldwin said Echols stopped speaking to him for a time over his involvement with “Devil’s Knot,” the script of which contained elements that Echols felt misrepresented him, but he said that lately Echols has resumed communicating with him by text.
Baldwin said the filmmakers made changes to the script to try to accommodate Echols, who now lives in Salem, Mass., with his wife, Lorri Davis, but Echols remains unhappy about the film.
“Honestly, I think it’s more to do with competition,” Baldwin said in an interview after the panel discussion. “He sold the rights to his own memoir to Johnny Depp, and they’re planning on making a movie.”
Baldwin said he did not believe the two films would compete because Echols’ story, “Life After Death,” is about Echols’ 18 years in prison and “Devil’s Knot” focuses on the crime and the trials.
As for Misskelley, who has moved back to West Memphis, Baldwin said, “Honestly, I’m worried for the guy.”
“He’s having difficult times financially, with work and his family,” he said. “His father is in poor health. I just worry for him all the time. As far as the relationship goes, we don’t communicate much.”
Baldwin said he used to call Misskelley occasionally, but the number he has for him is no longer in service.
Baldwin also is a co-founder of Proclaim Justice Inc., a nonprofit organization created to advocate for people who are incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. The launch of the organization was announced the same day as Baldwin’s talk in Little Rock.
He appeared cheerful Thursday, frequently smiling and laughing during the discussion. He said later he is not bitter about his experience.
“Bitterness and resentment and anger, that only compounds injustice,” he said. “It’s tragic and bad enough what’s happened to me. It would just be even more so if I allowed those things to come into my heart.”
Thursday’s program was sponsored by the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Arkansas Times. On Wednesday, Baldwin attended a screening in North Little Rock of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the latest sequel to “Paradise Lost” by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.
Another documentary about the West Memphis Three case, “West of Memphis,” co-produced by “The Hobbit” director Peter Jackson, is set for release in theaters Christmas Day.