'48 Hours Mystery' sits down with Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin

    11:06 AM, Sep 16, 2011   |    comments
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    NEW YORK (CBS) -- This Saturday, "48 Hours Mystery" takes a close-up look at the release of the West Memphis Three, who spent half of their lives locked up for the murders of three cub scouts in 1993.

    In their first TV interviews, tow of the men spoke to 48 Hours correspondent Erin Moriarty about their ordeal and their first weeks of freedom.

    Jason Baldwin says, "The first thing I did? Oh, I just smiled and got like a thousand hugs from everybody, you know? I smiled so much that my face actually hurt from it. You know, but it is a good thing. It just felt like everything was alright. Like, here's the time to begin, you know?"

    Jason Baldwin is beginning his life at age 34, doing the kinds of simple things most of us take for granted.

    On August 19, as part of a rarely used plea agreement, Jason, Damien Echols and Jesse Miskelley were suddenly and shockingly released from the Arkansas prisons where they had spent the last 18 years of their lives. Damien had been on death row. He says, "I've been in solitary confinement by that point for almost 10 years. I hadn't had sunlight in almost a decade. I was eating garbage. I was under stress that most human beings will never even be able to comprehend."

    What made the release so shocking is that these men, known as the West Memphis 3, had been convicted of one of the most heinous crimes in state history: the killing of three 8 year old boys in 1993.
    Yet, almost from the beginning, there were questions about their guilt. There was no physical evidence tying them to the crime. Jason, just 16 at the time, was offered a deal: five years in exchange for his testimony against his best friend Damien Echols. He refused.

    Jason says, "Well, to do something like that, in essence, that would actually make me guilty of murder. I'd be guilty of murdering Damien 'cause that's what it would have done. It would have put him on death row, an innocent person."

    A jury sent Damien to death row anyway, but recently, newly discovered evidence not only supports the innocence of the three convicted men, some DNA actually points to other people. Last month, the state agreed to release the men, but the deal-known as an Alford plea required all three of them to do what they had always refused to do: plead guilty to the crime.

    Jason says, "To me this just seemed like a cheap way for the state to save face and to get us out."

    Once again Jason turned down a deal. He says, "I told them I would not accept the plea because it's wrong. Anybody logical and reasonable and unbiased can look at it and realize they had the wrong guys you know and release us and I was unwilling to accept anything less."

    But after supporters, including the musician Eddie Vedder, begged him to save Damien Echols. Jason, again, stepped up for his friend. He says, "So whereas before I made the decision to turn down the first offer during my trial, you know because to save his life, it's kind of flipped around this time where if I took this deal it would guarantee his life being saved this time. So I took the deal. And now I'm free. No, no regrets now. You know, I'm living a great life. I'm free for the first time ever."

    You can see Erin Moriarty's full report on the West Memphis Three this Saturday on "48 Hours Mystery" at 9 p.m. right here on Today's THV.

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