Jason Baldwin on the West Memphis Three film ‘Devil’s Knot’ and Damien Echols
When Jason Baldwin met Seth Meriwether, the young actor playing him in “Devil’s Knot,” it couldn’t help but feel surreal. “I’m this old guy and this kid is 16. It hit me how much time has gone by and how young I was,” Baldwin says. The film is adapted from Mara Levitt’s 2001 book of the same name, one of many chronicles of Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jesse Misskelley Jr., otherwise known as The West Memphis Three. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley served 18 years after being wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of three boys.
The three were finally released in 2011, having been sentenced in 1994. As such, Baldwin could be on the “Devil’s Knot” set. Though he didn’t want to get in the way of the technical aspects of the shoot, he loved talking to that cast and crew, including Meriwether.
“He was so serious about getting the part right,” he says of the actor. “He had a bulletproof vest on and shackles and walked out of the courtroom. He said, ‘I’m an actor and these people are just actors, but when you’re walking through there and they’re yelling at you, it’s scary. I couldn’t imagine what it was like for you.’ All I could do was give the kid a hug.”
Baldwin, who executive produced the film, was involved early on, even speaking with the screenwriters. “They wanted it to be factually accurate; they were concerned that it wasn’t, so we addressed all those concerns. We added things, like when I told Judge Burnett that I was innocent. That didn’t make it into the script. They were totally welcoming and changed it.”
“Devil’s Knot” only focuses on the lead-up to the still unsolved murders, plus the trial that wrongly convicted Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley — which is to say it only covers the first of the three acclaimed “Paradise Lost” documentaries, made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Baldwin himself plays only a small part in the film’s narrative, which spends most of its time with Reese Witherspoon’s Pam Dobbs, the mother of one of the victims, and Colin Firth’s anguished investigator Ron Lax, who tries to save the three hounded teens.
The open-endedness of the film, Baldwin says, is good. “It puts focus back on the murders and the boys and the fact that we haven’t found who killed them. It lets people know what the smokescreen was for innocent people to be convicted for something they didn’t do and how we got away from the facts of the crime and turned it into ad hominem personal attacks.”
Indeed, Baldwin has dedicated his life to not only helping to track down the real killer(s), but raising awareness of other people who’ve been erroneously imprisoned, and who have been as lucky as he was. Now in his late 30s, he just got his associate’s degree, and is hoping to one day attend law school, though he’s taking a year off to write his memoirs.
“Just because I’m an innocent person doesn’t mean that I don’t understand what it means,” Baldwin says. “I’m still trying to figure out how this happened to me, and I don’t have the education to do it. I want to go to college and go to law school to understand it. But I’m not just waiting for law school.”
Baldwin has teamed with a friend to help other innocent prisoners, especially ones who don’t get aid from The Innocence Project, which deal exclusively with DNA-related cases. “Not every case has DNA, and you can’t say to those innocent people that there’s no hope,” he says.
A well-publicized riff occurred between Baldwin and Echols in 2012, a year after their release, which Echols credited as due to his involvement in “Devil’s Knot.” “It’s healed over,” Baldwin reveals. “We text from time to time. He’s got his family life. We’re not crossing paths often, but we are definitely joined together in getting this case re-opened and finding who really committed the crime.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge