The Observer doesn’t usually do reruns, but given the theme of this week’s issue, we thought we’d present a retread of a piece that ran in this space back on Jan. 18, 2011. No matter what you’re going through, friends, keep the faith. As Jason Baldwin — literally the most positive and upbeat person we’ve ever met — told us back in January: There’s always hope.
The Observer and our pal Mr. Photographer were supposed to get down to the prison on Monday to meet with the West Memphis Three – Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols – but got snowed out. By Friday, though, the roads had burned off and we were on again. We went to Varner Unit near Grady first; surrendered our cell phones and ball caps and cigarettes, took off our shoes and belts and allowed our persons and bags to be searched, and were finally ushered through the gates where signs warn of instant death if one is foolhardy enough to breach concertina wire to touch the electrified fence. We were there to see Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, but despite scheduling interviews weeks in advance, we were told by an unsmiling deputy warden that speaking to them hadn’t been cleared, only photographs. In the end, we found ourselves forced to simply stare at Echols and Misskelly through glass without speaking – two men on display, like meat.
The Observer is very close to the same age as the WM3, Echols a bit older, Baldwin a little younger. We remember the crime. We remember the trial. And we remember seeing “Paradise Lost,” the documentary about the case that injected into our mind a bitter grain of doubt, which has since grown over the years into a smooth, bright pearl of belief. What is engraved there is this: We have imprisoned innocent men, and somewhere a killer of children walks free.
Though The Observer tries to be impartial in all things, we feel no shame in telling you this. The mind and heart know what they know, impartiality be damned. To say anything less would be to make it plain that we are either a liar or a fool.
By the afternoon, we had been reunited with our cell phones and the trouble had been ironed out. We headed on to Tucker Max, where Jason Baldwin is shelved, assured that we would be allowed to talk to him like a human being.
He looks much older than he should – slightly balding now, with what should have been the salad days of his 20s well behind him. Sitting in a paneled conference room under the Great Seal of Arkansas, The Observer told Jason Baldwin that he is close to our age.
We’re usually never at a loss for words on an interview – always one question leading to another, and hardly ever enough time or patience for all of them. This time, though, we found our tongue was too big for our mouth. What do you say to a man who you believe to be innocent who may well die in prison, other than “I’m sorry”?
When we ran out of things to say, we told Jason Baldwin that we were a weirdo in high school – the kid in black who listened to odd music and read odd books.
Because we had gone that far, we went further. We told him what we have thought for a good 15 years now: That save a few quirks of geography, it could have just as easily been us sitting there in his bleached white jumpsuit, waiting to be cuffed and led back to the bowels of the prison, time stretching out before us like the blade of a long knife. Not because we were guilty, but because we would have surely looked the part to men seeking monsters and easy answers. After we were done – after 30 minutes of jawing about life and television and the books he reads – we said our goodbyes. The Observer went out to our car and drove back to Little Rock through the pristine fields, still draped in melting snow.
That night, The Observer kissed his wife, and hugged his son. That night, we lay down beside our beloved in our own bed, a free man, and listened to her breathing in the dark. Just before the door of sleep coasted shut and latched, we looked at the snowfield ceiling and thought: Why is it that good things happen to some people, and bad things to others? And then we thought: Too cruel to call it Fate.
See video of our interview with Jason Baldwin at arktimes.com/jasonbaldwin.