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Jason Baldwin, whose freedom from the 17-year prison term he served as one of the West Memphis Three was brought about by public scrutiny and press about the case, has joined with a Little Rock man to create "Proclaim Justice," a nonprofit that will seek to shine new light on old cases where the defendant might have been wrongfully convicted.
Baldwin and John Hardin launched the new group, which is funded through private donations, during Baldwin's mid-December trip to Little Rock. They've created a website, proclaimjustice.org, on which is posted their mission and cases they've chosen to spotlight so far: That of Arkansas Death Row inmate Tim Howard and the case of Daniel Risher, who was convicted of helping murder his girlfriend's mother in Magnolia in 1991.
Hardin, who's serving as executive director for Proclaim Justice, is a former spokesman for the group Arkansas Take Action, which rallied support for the West Memphis Three. A former campaign manager for Arkansas Congressman Vic Snyder who has also worked in the private sector, Hardin and his family visited Baldwin in Seattle, where Baldwin now lives. Conversations they had during that visit about the importance of public relations in wrongful conviction cases led to the creation of Proclaim Justice.
One of the things Proclaim Justice will do, Hardin said, is "help defense attorneys who are representing clients understand how they can better shape their messages for public consumption ... . Attorneys often get going on legal jargon that most people just can't understand, so we try to help them cut through the weeds of that."
Hardin said that during trials with a high level of public interest, defendants are often prejudged as guilty by the public because prosecutors and police have "a bully pulpit and a public microphone" they can use to get the message of a defendant's guilt into the press whenever they want, something that most defense attorneys are either unprepared or unwilling to counter. Post-conviction, Hardin said, many defendants lack the representation and resources to have their cases re-examined, which is why public interest and scrutiny of questionable cases is important.
"Most of the folks who find themselves in the situation that Jason and Damien [Echols] and Jessie [Misskelley Jr.] did, they're indigent," he said. "They have nobody on their side. They don't have Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines, Peter Jackson. They don't have those people. So just having that voice from people who understand what it is to organize messages and organize people and media campaigns can be the difference."
Hardin said the group carefully selects which cases to spotlight. The process starts with a series of standard questions which must be answered by way of a letter from the inmate. Once the letters come in, Hardin reviews them. If he thinks "there might be something there," Hardin sends the letter on to a volunteer case manager, usually a person with experience in law enforcement, investigation or the legal field. The case manager digs into the case and starts a correspondence with the inmate. If the case manager decides the conviction is questionable, the case is brought before the Proclaim Justice board of directors. If the board agrees with the case manager, a synopsis of the case and scanned police and court documents that will allow the public to drill down into paperwork and draw their own conclusions will be posted on the website.
Journalist and author Mara Leveritt, who has reported extensively on both the West Memphis case and the case of death row inmate Tim Howard, appeared with Baldwin during the Little Rock event in which he announced the formation of Proclaim Justice. She said that while no one wants "mob reactions" to alter the course of courtroom justice, there is value in bringing public pressure to bear in questionable cases. "The public has got to serve as a check and balance on the courts," Leveritt said. "We don't want that kind of influence — public hysteria and mass, violent reaction — to effect justice. On the other hand, though, our courts aren't perfect and we know that. When something can reach the public so that the public responds to it and says, 'wait a minute,' that can have an important effect, as we've seen in many cases."
Hardin said the group has already received letters from inmates from several states who are seeking help with their cases. While Proclaim Justice is a small group, Hardin said, it hopes to work on cases all over the country with the help of volunteers and an active web presence. The group is seeking volunteers with investigative backgrounds to serve as case managers, and others to do day-to-day tasks like corresponding with inmates.
"Obviously there are some cases that are easier than others," Hardin said. "Whenever you've got DNA evidence coming back that doesn't indicate the convicted, that's a fairly easy sell. If that's not the case, then you just have to take a long, complicated case history and boil it down to 10 or 12 talking points and make folks understand this is an injustice that they are currently unaware of, but are essentially participating in by not speaking out."
On his Facebook page on Jan. 14, Jason Baldwin wrote that though injustice can never be eradicated, "we are not helpless." Calling Proclaim Justice "a calling to help others as I have been helped," Baldwin wrote: "With Proclaim Justice and the dedicated, knowledgeable, hard-working core of people who make up the heart of this organization, I believe we can make a very real difference in the lives of the condemned innocent, their families and communities, and the countless others who are affected when innocence seems lost."