Last night, we kicked off the first night of the two-day "Cameras in the Court" event we're co-sponsoring with the Clinton School for Public Service and the Little Rock Film Festival. The first "Paradise Lost" documentary screened as part of the LRFF's monthly Argenta Film Series at the Argenta Community Theater. Afterwards, I moderated a discussion between Mara Leveritt, whose recent cover story is the impetus for the events, and Jason Baldwin and his girlfriend Holly Ballard.
Tonight's event, at 6 p.m. at the Clinton Presidential Library, will feature a more expansive discussion. RSVP details here.
Last night, Baldwin and Ballard talked about their life in Seattle. They have two cats. Jason rides his bike a lot. He's taking community-college classes towards a bachelor's degree. He said he's considering trying to go to law school someday. Since he was released last year, he and Ballard said they'd traveled constantly, thanking supporters and advocating against the death penalty and on behalf of groups fighting wrongful convictions. Today, Baldwin and longtime WM3 supporter John Hardin announced the formation of a non-profit, Proclaim Justice, to advocate on behalf of those imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. See the group's release on the jump.
Joe Berlinger, one of the filmmakers of the "Paradise Lost" films, was scheduled to attend, but had a last-minute conflict arise. But I recalled something he said a year ago when I interviewed him as part of a similar panel at the Argenta Community Theater. He said that he and his filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky originally came to West Memphis expecting to make a movie about rotten teen-aged devil worshippers.
Baldwin said when they realized that wasn't the story, they were afraid that would be the end of the project.
"There came a point when they suspected we were innocent, and they were actually scared to call their boss, Sheila Nevins at HBO. Joe has said he was afraid that he'd be told to pack it up and come home. But when he told Sheila that he believed we were innocent and this was a totally different story, to her credit, she said, 'Keep recording. Don't stop!' "
I asked him if he was ever reluctant to participate in the film.
"My main concern was my mom and two little brothers. It was one of the coldest winters in Northeast Arkansas history. Just before the murders happened, we were finally getting our lives together. My stepfather, who I love deeply, was an alcoholic and turned into a different person when he drank. My mom finally mustered up the courage to get away from him. She got her GED and got a job. But when I was arrested, her employer told her, 'I can understand you want to be there for your son during his court hearings, but you won't have a job to come back to.' For me, doing the film was all about getting a little bit of money and helping my mom and little brothers just to make it through that winter."
Baldwin talked more about his decision to accept the Alford Plea, where he pleaded guilty while publicly maintaining his innocence.
"I wanted there to be real justice. Not just for me and Damien and Jessie, but also for those three boys and their families. I know what they were going to do with this plea — not look for the real killer at all. I'd been living with this conviction for 18 years, and everybody who knew me, knew I was innocent. When I was incarcerated, everyone treated me with as much respect and care as they could. Shy of just taking me home for me, people looked out for me. It was no great sacrifice for me to say, 'I'm going to stay here for however long,' but I could not make that decision for Damien, for Jessie, for my family, for their families. In essence, I had to take the Alford Plea."
(Little Rock, AR-December 13, 2012) On Thursday, December 13, 2012 Jason Baldwin and John Hardin announced the launch of Proclaim Justice, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for those who are currently incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.
Jason, one of the men known as the West Memphis 3 (WM3), spent eighteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. John, who has years of experience in political and public affairs communications, played an important role in bringing media and public attention to the WM3 case. After Jason’s release, the two became close friends and began planning how they could most effectively advocate for others who have been wrongfully convicted, as well as how to affect policies that will help prevent future wrongful convictions. Proclaim Justice (PJ) is the result of those dreams and conversations.
While PJ will at times assist in the reinvestigation of its clients’ cases, its main role on defense teams is developing effective communications and media strategies to make the public aware of the injustice and organizing grassroots efforts to mobilize the public. “I know firsthand the benefit of people being made aware of a person being wrongfully convicted. Without awareness being raised and the tireless efforts of supporters who recognized the shameful injustice in our case, it’s likely Jessie and I would still be in prison and Damien would be dead,” said Baldwin.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 1030 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989. This is an astonishingly high number, but many criminal justice experts agree that it only scratches the surface. There are many factors that cause wrongful convictions, including cases of good prosecutors and investigators simply getting it wrong, cases that involve eyewitness misidentification, and instances of outright police or prosecutorial misconduct. “Whatever the cause in each case, we can no longer deny the fact that our criminal justice system gets it wrong with startling frequency,” said Hardin. “This is an indictment on our entire justice system, but the individual human element is often lost in the conversation. Innocent people are currently serving time for something they didn’t do. They and their families need advocates, which is exactly what we at Proclaim Justice will be.”
PJ has already been contacted by defense attorneys, other innocence organizations, and inmates seeking its assistance in managing communications and outreach on potential cases of wrongful conviction. It is based in Austin, TX, where Mr. Hardin lives. For more information on the organization, please visit http://www.proclaimjustice.org.
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