Jason and the warden

I visited Jason Baldwin in his new digs at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit a few weeks ago. It was great to see him, as always. But this visit came with a twist. We’d barely sat ourselves down in the hard plastic chairs in the concrete-block visitation room when in walks the warden, who also pulls up a chair and sits down.

I’ve known Warden David White for many years. As a long-time pro in the Arkansas Department of Correction, he’s had plenty of opportunity to answer media questions. Our past encounters were polite, if not always cordial. But this meeting was different. As Jason sat courteously by, White addressed himself to me and started talking about Jason and about the West Memphis case in general. He said Jason had been a fine inmate since arriving at his unit, and that he didn’t have to stay there. He said that after the investigation that had led to Jason’s being placed in the state’s Supermax facility, Jason had been cleared and sent to the Max, without any loss of class. In short, Jason could request to be sent to another unit, but had not. Jason nodded in assent. He said he was pretty satisfied where he was.

Then White said that a number of folks in the department had read my book. He said there’d been a lot of talk about the case since the announcement that DNA found at the site did not link to Jason, Damien or Jessie, but did match that of one of the stepfathers and his friend. It was a rather strange experience, having this friendly chat about the possibility that Jason was innocent while Jason sat there with us, wearing the prison whites that he has had to wear for almost 15 years.

In the end, the warden seemed to acknowledge the possibility that he was imprisoning an innocent man. Holding up his hands, White told me, “I don’t send them here. I just look after the ones the state tells me to take care of.”

With that, he said goodbye and let Jason and me resume our conversation. Jason was his usual cheerful self. We didn’t talk about much that was important, until the subject of Dustin McDaniel came up, and the attorney general’s comment that it might be two years before the state could come to a decision as to what to do about the increasingly ticklish West Memphis case. Suddenly, Jason became very serious. “I don’t know what would take them so long,” he said. “But I know one thing, and that is how long is too long to keep an innocent person in prison.” Here, he slammed his hand on the metal counter. “One minute!” he said. “One minute is too long to deny an innocent person his freedom.”

I drove back to Little Rock with two images playing on my mind. Jason’s passion on one hand and Warden White’s dispassionate hey-it’s-just-my-job congeniality on the other. What we supporters of the WM3 are trying to do is bring the passion of this to the cool marbled halls of state government. To his credit (and unless I misread him), White came closer to acknowledging the possibility of injustice in this case than any state official I know of. It’s time now for McDaniel and members of our tarnished court system to go the rest of the way: admitting the wrongs and setting about, without delay, to correct them.

On second thought, it’s not time. As Jason so clearly expressed it: it’s way past time.