Ultimately, I changed my mind for Damien and Jessie and their families. I gave no real credence to the idea that I wouldn’t be supported if I chose to stay in while Damien and Jessie walked free (which was not an option anyway). The truth is, I am fortunate enough that both of my parents are still in good health, and I could have survived another couple of years. But I knew that even when we were exonerated, it was likely that Damien’s mother and Jessie’s father—perhaps even Damien himself—wouldn’t be alive to see it. I couldn't make that decision for them, and that is why I took the deal, after Holly and I both spent the few short days we were given agonizing over this impossible choice.
Having said that, this has truly been a year of miracles and wishes come true. At the age of 35, I learned what most kids in America do at the age of 14 to 16, and that was to drive. I bought my first vehicle and earned my first paycheck, beginning work at a construction job three days after my release. (I am now working at a husband and wife law firm here in Seattle.)
This year has also found me on the path to becoming formally educated. I am currently enrolled in undergraduate studies with the hope that someday I can attend law school. I feel this deep need, a desire or calling if you will, to do my part in making this country and this world a better place. I have been so fortunate to spend much of the last year traveling nationally and internationally, lending the voice of my experiences to such issues as eliminating the death penalty and abolishing life without parole for juveniles. When you’ve lived 18 years under the shadow of the State’s very real threat to execute your best friend, that affects you deeply and emotionally. For me, it birthed the desire to see to it that no others suffer in this way. I also have a strong desire to see many of the guys I grew up with get a second chance at life.
As I begin another year of freedom, I am mindful also of the work Holly and I are doing as executive producers of Devil's Knot. This film is a screen adaptation of Mara Leveritt's book of the same name. As the years have gone on, there have been so many who have worked on this case tirelessly and doggedly. One such person is Mara, whom I love and respect deeply. Her tenacity and genuine desire to get at the truth of who murdered Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore is nothing short of heroism. Mara, you are a real life hero. Of course, without Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who documented our trials for their film Paradise Lost, the world would never have learned about the story Mara later detailed in her book. And without Kathy Bakken, Grove Pashley, Burk Sauls and Lisa Fancher of wm3.org, who spawned the movement to “Free the West Memphis 3,” people around the world--from Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines, to all of you who gave your time and money--would not have had an outlet for their support. This, as much as anything, is responsible for our freedom. Joe, Bruce, Kathy and Chad, Burk, Grove and Lisa, and all of you who have supported us over these years—you are heroes, too. (There are, of course, too many of you to name, but I would be remiss not to point out these brave people.) With even one piece of this puzzle missing, we would have been forgotten.
Pam Hicks is another person I respect immensely. Spending time with her on the set of Devil’s Knot is an experience I'll never forget as long as I live. It breaks my heart to know she'll never hold her son again on this Earth. But what gives me hope for her is Pam herself. She walked through that set and watched those scenes with a stoicism bordering on nobility. Though I know she'll not have her son back in this world, I also know that Stevie, Christopher and Michael shall not be forgotten, and I am hopeful that one day we will be successful in our ongoing efforts to find their true killer(s). This was the impetus for my eventual involvement with Devil’s Knot—seeing how this telling would be incredibly cathartic for Pam and so many others.
My first exposure to this film, however, came with the understanding that Damien had several objections to the script, though he had not met with the producers to discuss his concerns directly. I pursued a meeting with the producers to address those concerns because the movie was going to be made with or without us; I wanted to make sure it was as accurate as possible. When Holly and I were later offered the role of executive producers, I was reticent because of Damien. However, after it became very clear that Elizabeth Fowler and her production partners had every intention of rewriting the script to address Damien’s concerns (which they did), I chose to officially participate in what I viewed then and view even more now as a truthful, positive, and healing portrayal of this story.
Before I had even made that decision, however, Damien contacted me to let me know that he would no longer make public appearances with me or even communicate with me as a result of my involvement with the film. I have repeatedly reached out to him over the last few months with no response, but I continue to hope that he will come around. My door will always be open, if and when he does.
In the meantime, I also continue to act on the belief that this story belongs to a number of people—not just to Damien, Jessie and myself, but to our families, the families of the murdered boys and, to a lesser degree, all the citizens of the world who are moved by this kind of injustice. As such, I deeply feel that this story should continue to be told in as many ways as possible, for education and healing and to ensure that cases like this don’t happen again. That’s why I’ve spent the last year supporting a great number of projects, including Paradise Lost 3 and West of Memphis, the film produced by Damien and his wife Lorri Davis, which Pam Hicks and I traveled the country with them to promote.
This year was my first ever free as an adult. I do not recoil from the fact that I was literally raised in the Arkansas Department of Correction. It would be unhealthy of me to pretend otherwise. Instead I embrace all that I have been through, endured, survived, and even conquered. When I first entered those prison walls as a frightened, naive target for all the world's hate and rage, I had absolutely no idea what lay on the road before me. At this point I could tell you thousands of stories that illustrate events of the purest evil, hate and abuse, the least of which left my body literally broken.
But that is not what I want you to take away from this.
Instead, I want you to know that what I experienced is so much more than that. I never grew to love prison, but I did learn to love and even forgive the people I lived with while there. I had to face this legion head-on, armed only with compassion and empathy. I am glad to say that these sentiments won out over the years, to the point that guards and inmates alike were crying tears of joy and hugging my neck when I was finally released.
Looking back over my life, I am humbled also by your compassion and empathy—by the number of people who have come running to aid me in reaching the place I am today. If I am looking for a model of the type of human being I wish to be, there is no shortage of you out there for me to emulate. I cannot thank you all enough.
C. Jason Baldwin