Almost 20 years in the making, HBO Documentary Films’ Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, tells the story of the West Memphis 3, from their 1993 murder convictions to their August 2011 release from prison, as the result of an Alford plea (an arrangement where they would agree to plead guilty while asserting their innocence). While the terrible murders of three innocent young children was tragic enough, the fact that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley spent so many years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit made it one of the most notorious child murder cases in U.S. history.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, the now 34-year-old and free Jason Baldwin talked about what made him agree to be a part of these HBO documentaries, seeing these filmmakers really become advocates for this case and their freedom, maintaining such unflinching optimism in the face of such a horribly tragic situation, getting letters in prison from so many supporters, reveling in the ability to now do all the things he didn’t get the chance to before he was convicted, and his hopes for the future. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: When you first found out that HBO wanted to make a documentary about you guys, what was your initial reaction? Was it something that you were open to, or were you a bit skeptical about how they would handle it?
JASON BALDWIN: Well, initially, when I was first told about HBO wanting to film us, my mom was a single parent and she was raising me and my brother. I was 16 and my brother, Matt, was 14 and my youngest brother, Terry, was 9. So, when I was arrested, it was like the whole community out there turned rabid and hateful, not only towards me, Damien [Echols] and Jessie [Misskelley], but towards our families as well. They caught so much hell.
My mom was gonna make sure she was at every hearing and every court appearance, to let me know that I had her love and support, and that she had my back. But, she had just left my stepfather, so she had gotten her GED and was becoming independent. She was trying to get us on our feet, as a family, so she had just started a job. So, when this happened, her employer and the whole community just turned against her. They told her, “You can go to the hearing and stuff if you want, but you won’t have a job.” Her being my mom, she was like, “I’m going to be there.”
So initially, for me, I was 16, so I wasn’t thinking, “HBO is going to capture this on film, so the world can see.” I was thinking that I would go home after the trial. What I was trying to do was help my mom get a little money to get her through the winter while I was going through the trial. That was initially my reasoning for accepting an HBO deal. It was so much bigger than that, with the outcome of the trial, but that was my initial reason.
Over time, these filmmakers really became advocates for your case. Was it pretty evident, fairly quickly, that they weren’t just looking to profit from making this, and that they really wanted to shine a light on what was going on and try to help you guys out?
BALDWIN: At the beginning, Joe [Berlinger] didn’t know me, he didn’t know Damien, he didn’t know Jessie, and he didn’t know the fact of the case. He started out just filming the kids’ families, and he was operating under the assumption that we were guilty. It wasn’t until later, after he had already entrenched himself in the community and started visiting Damien, Jessie and myself, and then seeing the way things played out during the evidentiary hearing and how it was presented, and hearing how stuff was shown in front of the jury and the way the judge was ruling on it, that they started to realize that it was something other than what they initially assumed.
At first, they just assumed we were guilty because that’s what the media had portrayed. Then, they realized we were getting a raw deal and we were innocent. That’s what galvanized them further, to do a second and third film. Initially, it was just going to be one documentary, and then they were going to move on. It was a total eye-opener for them. Since I’ve been free, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with Joe and actually get to know him, instead of just sitting in prison or in a jail room, where he’d come with the cameras and camera crew and ask me a few questions, and then leave.
Now, I’ve gotten to spend time with his family, and we had a week in Amsterdam together. It just feel like this great union of old friends. I look up to him, so much. There are no words that I can really say to express how thankful and grateful I am for what he helped get started, even though that was not his initial goal. That was just the wonderful way the universe came together on this. It just blows me away, every day. Every day, I’m amazed by it.
One of the things that’s so remarkable about you is this unflinching optimism that you have, and seem to have been able to maintain. Is that just who you are, as a person, or is it more of a survival mechanism for you? Were there moments that you really have had to struggle to maintain that?
BALDWIN: That’s a good question, and it’s a question that we’ve had to ask ourselves. When it comes down to it, I decide to be the person I am and how I want to react to things. During those times, I could easily have decided to be, “Woah is me, why is this happening?,” and just crawl in a corner and give up, or cry. I decided not to. But, it wasn’t just me. In the beginning, it was my family – my mom and my brothers – and my friends, who knew the truth. That gave me strength. And then, later on, as Joe’s films came out, and then as Mara Leveritt’s book (Devil’s Knot) came out and people started seeing this for what it really was, and the letters started coming in and people were like, “Anything I can do, I’ve got your back, even if it’s just to say, ‘Keep your head up,’” that reinforced it and helped. So, it wasn’t anything I’ve really done, on my own. All this love and support, coming from all over the world, was a big factor in that. It’s not any one thing.
At what point did you realize that there were individuals who did believe that you were innocent and really got behind making sure the rest of the world knew that? Do you remember the first letters you got from people?
BALDWIN: The very first letter I got, it was right before my 17th birthday. I got this letter from this girl and it said, “To Jason Baldwin, somewhere in prison.” It was the very first letter I’ve ever gotten in my entire life, and there was no address on there, but it reached me. It found me in prison. This girl was telling me that I had interrupted her morning viewing of Oprah, when it came on that we had been convicted of these horrible crimes and they showed footage of me, taking to the judge and telling him that I was innocent. She said that, without even knowing about the case and just hearing about it in the periphery, when she saw me on that, she just believed me and she wanted to let me know that. That was the very first letter I got, even without the documentaries.
Of course, later on, after the documentaries came out, there were so many more letters. When you’re a kid, growing up, or even now, it’s hard to see the bigger scope or the bigger scheme of things. I try to see it. Things like that get away from us, from time to time, but I try to be thankful for the small things, and see how things fit together, and see how things can be good, even if it appears to be bad. It’s definitely an exercise. I’m just thankful, every day. Bad things happen to good people, all the time, all over the world. Not just wrongful convictions, but war and things like that. Not everyone is as blessed or as lucky as Damien, Jessie and I, to get people rallying to save our lives, and to make sure something is done for those kids and their families.
Maybe we can find out who really did this crime. I’m always mindful of that, and I’m always thankful for that, every day. Every day, I make the decision to be glad today, no matter how big or how small things are that come my way. That’s an exercise I started, in those situations, a long time ago, just to find something to enjoy and something to be thankful, and not stress too much over what isn’t right or the way things should be. That doesn’t mean that I ignored it either.
Has it been challenging to go from the extreme of being in prison for life to now being out and doing interviews? Are you reveling in the ability to go to a Metallica concert and get a driver’s license, or does that become overwhelming, at times?
BALDWIN: It is a bit overwhelming, but you can’t run from your past, hide what you’ve been through, ignore it, or cut and paste it out of your life. It is part of who you are and what you’ve been through, so you’ve got to embrace it and utilize it as a strength, and not look at it as something you don’t ever want to think about, even though it wasn’t anything you would have chosen for yourself. With that said, you still have to remain humble, peaceful and thankful, and just enjoy the moment. There’s been so much love, over the years, and even now.
One of my favorite things to do now is to meet people who have sent those positive vibes through the universe to me, all these years, and shake their hand, give them a hug, look them in the eye and say, “Thank you so much.” Getting to go through all the media stuff, I see it like my duty. This is what I need to do to give back and thank everyone who’s done all of this.
As far as going to see Metallica, when I was in prison, I would always think, “I’ve got to get out before they do something silly, like retire.” I got so scared when Jason Newsted left the band. I was like, “Oh, no!” I know that’s a silly thing, but we can be silly about things. I missed the first one, but I caught the last three of their 30th anniversary shows, at the Fillmore in San Fran. It was unbelievable. I still can’t believe I went! I was just in speechless awe, the entire time. It was like being in the holy cathedral, or something. I didn’t want to speak too loud or bump into anything. I just wanted to soak it in and enjoy it, when I wasn’t yelling and singing with them.
Have you thought about what you would like to do, in the future?
BALDWIN: Yeah. When all this happened to me, I was picked up, kidnapped, arrested, or whatever you want to call it, on my last day of school for the 10th grade. I was 16, and I had all these goals that a 16-year-old would have. My next door neighbor was helping me get my first job that summer, sacking groceries at Kroger. We had this deal where she was going to help me out and match me, dollar for dollar, on new clothes and a car. I had this cool life lined up with these little goals that a 16-year-old wants to reach. So, when I was picked up, I didn’t get to do any of that. Even though I’ve gotten older and became an older man – I’m 34 years old – there were things I still had not done.
So, when I got out, those were things that I needed to do. I needed to learn to drive, so I learned to drive. I just got my driver’s license. The third day out of prison, I had the wonderful experience of getting a job working for a construction crew, building this magnificent place. Of course, they had been working on it for three years, and I just came in and helped with the finishing touches. I got my first paycheck. I just got my very own apartment, about a week ago. All these first things are happening in my life. I was actually going to start college this month, but I put that off to go with Joe [Berlinger] and promote Paradise Lost 3, and just see the country and the world, and meet people. Before I was released, the furthest north I had ever been was the Craighead County Jail in Jonesboro, the furthest west I had ever been was the Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and the furthest south I had ever been was the Varner Unit in Grady, Arkansas. I wanted to take this opportunity to do some traveling, see some places and meet the people, but I’m going to buckle down.
On April 3rd, I’m going to start college. Then, I’ve gotta sit tight because I can’t be missing school days. I hope to study law, if my grades are good enough and I can get into law school. Sadly, I’m still a convicted felon, undeserved, but there are other ways I can use a law degree until I’m completely exonerated. Who knows, I might be exonerated by then and can practice law. But, there are other ways I can help in the legal field with my experience as an innocent man in prison and a good, strong foundation in education. Hopefully, I’ll be able to help people out that are in similar situations, who are innocent people in prison, or help prevent innocent people from going to prison.
That’s what I look forward to doing. That’s what I hope to do with my life. That’s my way of paying it forward. They say things happen for a reason, and sometimes we get to choose that reason. I’m a firm believer in choice. Even when you think things are hopeless and you have no choice in the matter, you always have choices. Those are my choices.