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Jason's choice 

Friendship, freedom and a principled stand.

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

Over the years, the West Memphis Three case has often felt like the Damien Echols Show. It's understandable why. Sitting on Death Row, Echols has always had the most to lose. He's the most photogenic, the most articulate, the most artistic of the three — an accomplished writer, artist and poet. Too, he's served the hardest time: locked down 23 hours a day, he reportedly hadn't been outdoors in over 10 years before last Thursday.

It seemed odd, then, that the hero of Aug. 19, 2011, turned out to be Jason Baldwin. By taking the plea deal instead of going with his original, principled stand to roll the dice on a new trial in hopes of being found innocent — a stand which might have scuttled the deal for all three — Baldwin was not only able to secure his own freedom but that of Echols and Misskelley as well. His attorney calls it one of the most compassionate things he's ever seen a client do in all his years of practice.

At the press conference on Friday, Baldwin choked up several times while describing the agonizing decision he made to put his hope of being found innocent aside for the sake of his friends. "I did not want to take the deal in the get-go," he said. "However, they're trying to kill Damien. Sometimes you've just got to bite down to save somebody.

"I'm obviously ready to get out of prison," Baldwin went on to say. "I want to be out, and deserve to be out. I was ready to fight it in trial and court as much as possible. But [Damien] had it so much worse than I had it, on Death Row. It's just insufferable to put a person through that for any more minutes. I don't know why I didn't even think too much about that at first when the plea came to me. But I'm just glad that he's out now, and he's going to be with his wife and surrounded by people who love him and care for him, and are not intent on hurting him."

When first approached by his attorney, Blake Hendrix, with the deal on August 10 — a deal which Hendrix said prosecutors made clear was a "global proposition," all three of the WM3 or none — Baldwin turned it down flat, saying he didn't want to be saddled with convictions for crimes he didn't commit. After that, Hendrix went back to prosecutors and inquired whether Echols and Misskelley could take the plea while Baldwin stayed in jail until trial, but they rejected that possibility, saying it was all or none. It wasn't until later in the week, Hendrix said, after several "non-attorney friends" came to Baldwin and chatted with him about how hard Echols had it on Death Row, that Jason dropped his objections and agreed to take the Alford plea with the rest.

Hendrix said he had essentially the same thing to say to Baldwin both times he met with his client that week — first when Baldwin rejected the deal, and later when he decided to take it. "I said: 'Jason, that is one of the most noble things I've ever had anyone say to me,' " Hendrix recalled. "This was one of the most genuine, kind things I've ever seen anybody do for somebody else." Though Hendrix said that he has long been convinced of Baldwin's innocence, he adds that his client's reluctance to take the deal should prove that beyond a doubt. "Rejecting an offer that let him immediately get out of jail? That's one of the for-surest signs that he's innocent."

Hendrix said he can't divulge where Jason Baldwin is now, other than to say that he's resting and relaxing while friends and supporters help re-acclimate him to society after 18 years in jail. It's easy to imagine Baldwin somewhere in the sun right now, smiling and on his way to tanned. It's a stark contrast to where he was two weeks ago: a thin man in a white prison jumpsuit, sitting on a prison bunk deep down in the night, his friend's lives as free men in one hand, and his dream of being found truly innocent in the other.

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