11:41 am Sep. 19, 201210
Damien Echols always knew he was destined for something bigger than the dead-end existence he was born into.
“I just had the feeling that it was something less mundane, less mediocre than the lives I saw around me," Echols told me in a phone conversation last week. "I would see so many people in the world that I came from—poverty-stricken, illiterate, going nowhere—and it was really nightmarish. I always had that feeling that surely somehow there’s got to be something better than this out there. And it always seemed that those people, from that world never really felt that way; they never really looked for anything else; they never really desired anything else. And I did.”
Echols is currently on his way to becoming—more and more so each day—the “less mundane” person that he always knew he could be, but he’s had some pretty large hiccups along the way. Echols was forced to spend eighteen years of his life on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, where Echols lived, and when, less than a month into the investigation, detectives from the West Memphis Police Department had no answers but were desperate for some, they took the easy way out, blaming Echols, his best friend Jason Baldwin, and their acquaintance Jessie Misskelley Jr., the town “misfits,” who later came to be known as the “West Memphis Three.”
Officials chalked the murders up to satanic rituals, creating mass hysteria around a purely invented story in order to quell the city’s fears. Unfortunately, it worked, and the three were tried and found guilty—Baldwin and Misskelley Jr. were sentenced to life imprisonment, and Echols, who was seen as the supposed ringleader, was sentenced to death. In 1996, Paradise Lost, the first of a series of three documentaries directed by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the injustices of the case, was released, over time gaining the interest of many supporters, including Echols’ now-wife Lorri Davis, and celebrities such as Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. In August of 2011, after new DNA evidence had been found that absolved the three men of any connection to the murders, the WM3 were abruptly released from prison by way of the Alford Plea, a legal maneuver in which the defendant acknowledges that the prosecution can prove its case and enters a guilty plea, but maintains his or her innocence.
Echols now has a book. Titled Life After Death, it's a memoir comprised mostly of journal entries he wrote while in prison, as well as some writing he’s done since his release. Echols has loved writing since he was 12.
"[It's] something that scratches an itch deep inside of you that you can’t reach any other way,” he said. When he was keeping journals in prison, he always had the sense that he wasn’t recording his thoughts entirely for himself. “Even while I was writing I would think that maybe one day, somehow, this was going to mean something to someone else, or have an impact on someone else’s life.”
The book isn’t all that’s on the horizon for Echols, either. Along with friends and supporters Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (The Lord of the Rings), he and Davis are co-producing the upcoming documentary West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg, also about the WM3 case, this one with new material about the men’s convictions.
On the day we spoke, Echols was feeling exhausted, he told me. He and Davis had woken up at four in the morning to catch a train to Salem, MA. After living in New York City for his first year post-death-row, the couple bought a house in Salem and were moving in that day. It was also his fourth interview that day, and he had two more scheduled for later that evening. It's not so much the attention that wearies him, but the subject.
“If I could get up in the morning and never discuss this case again,” he said, “I would love to do that, but I can’t. If I were to do that, then it would never be over for me.” Echols looks at his constant seat in the spotlight as a necessary evil. Though the Alford Plea was a miracle in the sense that it allowed the three men to finally be released from prison, they each still have three counts of murder on their criminal records and have been working on being fully cleared of these charges since their release.
Echols feels confident that the only way for this to happen is to keep the case in the public eye, applying increasing pressure on the state of Arkansas until they’re forced to reopen the case.
“Right now, we have no sense of closure, and the only way we’re ever going to get that sense of closure is if we’re completely exonerated; if the people who belong in prison are in prison; if the officials in the state of Arkansas are held accountable,” Echols said, his voice, and probably his heartbeat, escalating.
On a recent trip to Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival, which Echols was attending on behalf of West of Memphis, he was denied a travel visa on account of his criminal record.
“I don’t think most people realize how deeply this case reaches into our lives and affects us on so many levels,” Echols said. “We had to fight, I mean non-stop, even to get into the country to screen the movie, and to help get the word out about this case. It’s just been one thing after another after another after another for the past year.”
The worst part about constantly being poked and prodded by the media (surely myself included) is, Echols said, “having to relive it over and over and over again.” He added, “Imagine the most horrific, traumatic, hurtful thing that ever happened to you in your life, and then having to talk about it every single day.”
Eventually, Echols would like to open up a small center somewhere, where he’ll have meditation and Tarot reading classes; a place that will allow him to “live quietly, self-sufficiently, and move on.” He added, excitement creeping into his voice, “I could share with people the things I learned that helped me to survive almost twenty years in prison under the harshest circumstances, so that they could apply them to the problems they’re facing in life.”
Of course, Echols plans to continue writing, as well. He hopes that the voice he used to write about his case in Life After Death will stand on its own, independent of the story.
“Everyone wants to hear about the case right now—that’s the thing they want me to write about,” he said. “But I would hope that maybe they like my voice enough that they would want me to write about other things, and that it frees me up to keep writing about other experiences, other practices, other adventures.”
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