By: Jason Baldwin
It wasn’t that long ago that the furthest places in the world I had ever been to in any direction were defined by either a jail or a prison. I recently shared this truth with Michael Morton and Daniel Villegas while in El Paso at a fundraiser/golf tournament benefiting Proclaim Justice.
Like me, both of these men have suffered terribly from wrongful conviction. Michael has been exonerated, but only after having served nearly 25 years in TX for murdering his own wife. Daniel is currently out on appeal bond after serving over 18 years for a shooting he is completely innocent of. I have been free for 6 years now, after serving over 18 years in Arkansas for the murder of three young 8-year-old boys, a murder I did not commit. I’m free, but not exonerated as I was forced into what is called an Alford Plea (where I maintain my innocence while the State maintains their theory of, my guilt) in order to save the innocent life of my childhood best friend, Damien Echols, who was facing being murdered by the state of Arkansas by lethal injection.
Between the three of us we have served over 60 years in prison as slaves. Even though none of us are currently behind bars, we each are at different points along the long and winding Road of Condemned Innocents.
Michael is where every person who is wrongfully convicted wants and deserves to be: exonerated, freed, and somewhat compensated for his ordeal by the state. Daniel’s and my cases are a bit different than Michael’s: ours have the added twist of a real-life Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads.
For me, that sword comes in the form of the suspended sentence that threatens to morph into a 21-year sentence should I commit a crime within 10 years from the date of my release on August 19th, 2011. Essentially, I won’t be “in the clear” until August 19th of 2021. I’ve got 6 years in and 4 more to go, which I am always aware and wary of.
Daniel has been “free” for several years now on an appeal bond and is working for Mimbela Contractors Inc. Thanks to his skills and the faith of the owner and Proclaim Justice board member John Mimbela, Daniel has a bright future. Since being free, Daniel has become a new dad and is putting family roots down in El Paso.
Since I’ve been free I’ve traveled the country and world. I spent my first Thanksgiving in Amsterdam and can travel freely without worry, for the most part. No longer is the Craighead County jail in Jonesboro, Arkansas the farthest north I’ve even been. That title now belongs to Toronto, Canada. No longer is the farthest west I’ve ever been the Diagnostic Unit in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. That title now belongs to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands in the northwesternmost part of Washington state. No longer is the farthest south I’ve ever been the Varner Supermax Unit in Grady, Arkansas. That title now belongs to San Antonio, Texas, where I saw Metallica play live.
Like me, Michael has been all over the world too and is free to travel as an exoneree. The same cannot be said for Daniel—he has to get special permission to leave since he is out on an appeal bond. That is not always an easy task to accomplish. Travel for work is one thing, but if he just wants to get away for the weekend with his family then that is almost impossible.
Even though I did not do time in Texas with either Michael or Daniel, it was good for me to spend some time with them on this side of the fence just smiling and laughing together. My heart breaks for all the innocent still behind prison bars, but that is what Proclaim Justice is all about: freeing innocents.
I don’t worry about Michael. He pretty much has his life figured out. I do worry about Daniel. His case is one of our biggest cases right now and the state is threatening to try him again. For Daniel’s part, he is living his life the way I imagine he has always dreamed: raising a family and building a future. I admire him his bravery so much! I must admit to not being so brave. People ask me all the time when Holly and I will have kids—my parents, her parents and everyone else asks that question. The answer for me is we aren’t. As long as my name is not cleared, as long as this suspended sentence and Alford Plea hang over my head I cannot, in good conscience, bring a life into this world. All I can think of is Damien’s son growing up without his father. I cannot risk it.
There are many innocents who have suffered wrongful conviction. Not all of us get our lives back. But I aim to give as many of them back as I can. That I can do.
Charles Jason Baldwin served over 18-years of a life without parole sentence and faced down the State of Arkansas’s death threats with dignity, honor and grace for crimes for which he is completely, actually and factually innocent. To this day he seeks the identity of the murderer(s) of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steve Branch