Jason Baldwin Brian Chilson

It’s been 10 months since The Observer hung up our cleats after 15 years as a reporter and took a job with a little more pay, a little less stress and a lot better insurance to take care of our various health bugaboos. It’s nice here, and though it keeps us chained to a desk most days, we have a lovely view of the Arkansas River. Still, we miss the job, and take our opportunities to reminisce about the old days. One of the stories we always get around to telling is the time we spoke to Jason Baldwin of the West Memphis Three.

Of the WM3, Baldwin always seemed like the one who was most often forgotten, with poetic and philosophical Damien Echols getting most of the press and Jessie Misskelley getting most of the pity. In January 2011, The Observer was assigned to go down to the prison and talk to the three, and we jumped at the chance. We recall the crimes. We recall the trials, and the outstanding trial coverage in the Arkansas Times by Bob Lancaster, who was one of the first to publicly call bullshit on that kangaroo court, and the later, iconic WM3 stories of Mara Leveritt. We recall our first viewing of “Paradise Lost,” the documentary that forced millions to face the terrifying possibility that we had locked up three innocent men while allowing a butcher of three children to walk free.

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It had snowed some days before our trip to the prison, and though the roads between Little Rock and Pine Bluff quickly burned off, the sleeping winter fields were still white, like driving across a bleached canvas waiting for paint. Despite scheduling interviews weeks ahead, when we got to the prison where Echols and Misskelley were held, we were informed by a deputy warden that we hadn’t, in fact, been cleared for an interview, only photographs. With our cell phones taken at the gate and all of us entombed in that place where you don’t get much of a choice as to what happens and what doesn’t, The Observer found himself forced to sit mute on threat of expulsion while our photographer, Brian Chilson, snapped photos.

Once we were released and our cell phones handed back, we got on the horn to the ADC spokesperson, who was home sick that day with the flu. By the time we got to Tucker Max, where Baldwin was held, we’d been assured we would actually get to talk to him. Once inside, the guards put us in a wood-paneled conference room with the Great Seal of Arkansas on one wall. After a while, they brought Baldwin in, wearing glasses and a bright white jumpsuit that made us think of the melting snow we’d driven through to get there.

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He was older than we remembered him, of course, his teens and 20s lost inside those walls. Over the next 30 minutes or so, we chatted about the books he read and the music he listened to. Just two fellas, in a room, talking. The thing that surprised The Observer most, though, was the person he was inside, even after all he’d suffered. The Observer had been on the job nine years by then, covering a lot of homicides, writing stories that wound up being a catalog of all the rage and stupidity human beings are heir to. It had made us angry at times, often pessimistic about life and our place in it.

Jason Baldwin, meanwhile, went to prison in 1994 for a crime he didn’t commit. Back then, he was a thin, slight boy, locked up in a place where every person believed him to be a molester and killer of children. We didn’t talk about it with him, because how do you talk about a waking nightmare like that? But there’s no way you go in under those circumstances without serving the hardest time.

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But here, with that past behind him and the potential for spending the rest of his life in that shadowy box, was a man who was literally one of the most positive and optimistic people The Observer has ever met — smiling, upbeat, steering the conversation ever in the direction of grace, forgiveness and light. There was a quote from that interview that The Observer typed up the same afternoon we got back from the prison. We printed it out and pinned it up in a place where we could see it from our desk: “You never want to feel that there’s no hope. … Bad things happen all over the world, and you can’t let bitterness or regret or anger make it worse.”

Looking at that quote got The Observer through some very hard days. But at that moment, in that conference room with the seal of the state hanging over Jason Baldwin’s body like the descending blade in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” how could either of us know that in seven short months, he would be free? How could either of us know that The Observer would stand in Jonesboro in the burning heat of August and watch Jason leave the courthouse with Damien and Jessie, to begin their lives again?

We couldn’t, which made the fact that he strung together those words all the more incredible. Then and many days afterward, The Observer found himself thinking: If this man, who had lost so much and stood prepared to lose so much more, could find the will to keep his hope alive and carry on, who am I to despair? We don’t exaggerate when we say that interview, unlike so many hundreds of forgettable others, changed The Observer’s life.

We followed Jason Baldwin on social media for a few years after his release, watching him make his way, still the same person we met at the prison, always smiling, always attempting to bend the conversation in the direction of hope and goodness. After a while, it felt a bit voyeuristic and foolish to peek in at the life of a man we’d shared a single conversation with, so we stopped. We are all exhibitionists and voyeurs now, aren’t we? Still, we often think of him and that moment there in the conference room at Tucker Max. We think of him standing somewhere in the sun and blue jeans, with the wind in his hair. We think: We’d like to sit down with him and chat again someday, two free men this time, both of us thankful for all we’ve been given.

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