'Devil's Knot' follow-up, 'Dark Spell,' debuts 

Baldwin on 'Surviving the Sentence.'

This section picks up after Jason has heard himself sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1993 murders of three children in West Memphis.

On that Saturday, March 19, 1994, when Judge David Burnett sentenced Jason to life in prison, the teenager's 17th birthday was still more than three weeks away. The following Monday morning, guards cuffed and shackled him for the three-hour ride from the jail in Jonesboro, in Arkansas's northeast corner, to the Arkansas Department of Correction's Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff, about 150 miles south. Carrying his Bible and $35 from his mother and friends at the jail, he climbed into a van with six other prisoners.

Three hours later, the van approached a big brick building surrounded by barbed wire: the prison system's Diagnostic Unit. "My heart starts beating really hard now," Jason said, "and my breathing speeds up. I see the guard towers. We pull up to one and the officer driving speaks to another officer up on the balcony, and he says he's got seven from Craighead County, and yes, Jason Baldwin is one of them.

"At the sound of my name, my heart just stops. This is really happening. I am going to prison for murder. Everything seems to be happening in slow motion. The officer in the tower lowers a milk crate on a rope and the officers up front drop their guns in the basket and it is hoisted away. Then the little bar in front of the van is raised up and we enter the grounds of the prison."

Jason felt the free world slipping away as he moved toward the building. "I am led out, the shackles biting into my ankles," he said, "the chains dangling from my waist to my handcuffs. I hold onto my paper sack that contains a few letters from my mom and brothers, my Bible and the little bit of money that was given to me, and I walk through a gate. Into the building I go. I set foot into prison. It is dark, but my eyes get used to it."

Adaptation, while essential to prison survival, does not assure it. Jason's eyes adjusted quickly. Intuitively, he knew that the challenge ahead would be to discern where he could adapt — and to decide where he would not. "An officer comes and takes the cuffs and shackles and chains off. I am told to wait in line with the other guys to be processed. I wait, and eventually I reach an old man who takes inventory of all that I have. He takes my money and tells me it will be put onto my account. 'My very first account,' I think to myself — so different from what I had planned.

"Then I am in a room standing in front of three people sitting in front of a table with a bunch of papers in front of them. It's some type of hearing board. They are all sharply and nicely dressed. I am conscious of my orange jail jumpsuit. They tell me to get naked. I must not have heard them right. This time it is an order: 'Get naked,' they say. So I take off my clothes until I am in my underwear. 'All of it,' they say, so I take them off too and stand there in front of them and their hateful stares. One of them says, 'You think you're tough, don't ya?'

"I think to myself, 'Yeah, I've got to be tough to survive all of this.' I've got to be and my mantra is born: 'I am tough.' I say that out loud. And then one of them says to the others, 'He won't be tough for long,' and they all laugh. It is humiliating.


Speaking of "Devil's Knot", West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin,, "Dark Spell"

  • Mara Leveritt answers: Could the West Memphis Three case happen today?

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    We're kicking off a new series today called Answers, where we ask interesting folks a series of questions and post their answers in short videos. On a busy week, Mara Leveritt was gracious enough to be our first interview subject. She's, of course, the author of "Devil's Knot" and the forthcoming "Dark Spell." She's also likely had her byline in the pages of the Times longer than anyone else. Tonight, she'll celebrate the premiere of the film adaption of "Devil's Knot" at the Ron Robinson Theater. /more/
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