Damien Echols, of the West Memphis Three, on Death Row and the Shocks of Being Free
After nearly two decades in prison, the man who was wrongly convicted of murdering three children speaks out about his trauma, his celebrity backers, a new documentary and looking to the future.
In 1993, three teenagers were accused of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin, who became known as the West Memphis Three, were put on trial for gruesome crimes that included hogtying, dismembering and violating the eight-year-old cub scouts. The trial became a national sensation, and prosecutors painted the three teens -- allegedly led by Echols, who was 18 at the time -- as Satan-worshipping delinquents whose previous misdemeanors in a culturally rigid Bible Belt town made them obvious suspects.
Their trial was dominated by science that would soon come under fire, and hinged on a confession from Miskelley, who was said to have made up a story to satisfy prosecutors; with an IQ of 72, he was unaware of the gravity of the situation.
Ultimately, the three were convicted, with Misskelley and Baldwin getting life sentences and Echols receiving the death penalty. As Echols, a tall man with long black hair and artful tattoos sleeving his arms, sat on death row in solitary confinement, a sense of injustice stuck in the craw of many nationwide. As he exhausted appeals and new elements of the case emerged (a father and stepfather of two of the murdered children have been fingered as potential killers), questions surrounding the convictions spurred three Paradise Lost documentaries between 1996 and 2011.
Many celebrities, including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, became actively involved in the case. So did Lord of the Rings director-producer Peter Jackson, who with his partner Fran Walsh and director Amy Berg made the documentary West of Memphis, which pieced together the ever-developing facts of the case.
In 2011, after the initial judge in the case denied their appeals, the state finally cut the three a deal, giving them an Alford plea. That meant they had to admit guilt but got out of prison with time served. Echols accepted, but continues to fight for justice with the help of his wife, Lori Davis, who first contacted him in prison in 1996 and married him while he was still on death row.
Echols and Davis spoke with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month in Manhattan as they readied for the Dec. 25 release of West of Memphis.
THR: Back in 1993, did you think when you were on trial that it would be a conviction?
Echols: Yes and no. It’s weird, it’s hard to describe, just because you’re always raised to believe -- I was a kid basically, 18 years old -- and my experience with that sort of thing was always on TV, where it’s always innocent until proven guilty. So part of your mind is thinking it’s impossible for them to actually prove that you’ve done something that you haven’t done, so somehow it had to work out. So part of you still believes that. But at the same time, part of you is already so beat down. I had been in jail for almost a year by the time we went to trial, so it beats a little bit of the hope out of you. You get to the point where you can’t see anything working out. So it’s this weird thing where you go back and forth, thinking there’s no hope, these people are going to murder me, and thinking surely this thing is going to work out. It’s almost like you’re torn.
THR: It seems ludicrous that they’d take the stuff you’re into as a teenager, the stuff kids explore, and use that as proof you’re a killer. It could happen to any kid in that case.
Echols: I mean, you think of things that most people wouldn’t think is a big deal. Like the fact that I read Stephen King novels. That’s the number-one highest-selling author in the history of the world, and it’s weird that I read him? You don’t see how they can do something like that, but they did.
THR: So what is a typical day in solitary confinement like, if that doesn't sound silly?
Echols: For the last almost-decade I was in there, I was in solitary confinement. So for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you’re basically sealed inside a concrete box. So just imagine if you went in your bathroom and stood there for 10 years. That’s what it’s like. But, at the same time, though, you never get to rest. You’re always having to look over your shoulder, because you have people trying to hurt you constantly. It gets to the point where you never even go into a deep sleep. You’re always in this really light sleep.
There are times where you hear a noise in the middle of the night, and you’re already up on your feet in the middle of the cell room to fight before you’re even awake. It’s like deeper than reflex, and it takes a long time to get rid of that. It used to scare the hell out of Lori whenever I first got out and I was still doing stuff like that, jumping out of bed in the middle of the night at the slightest noise. You’re already exhausted, you’re always hungry, you’re always in pain.
THR: So the people you’re referring to, they’re guards?
Echols: Every single time I was in fear of losing my life in prison, it was always from the administration.
THR: Lori, what got you interested in this case?
Davis: Seeing Paradise Lost when it first screened here in 1996. It was just hard-hitting in a lot of ways. And I’m from the South, so I understood the culture, but I also understood somewhat what it was like to be an outsider growing up in the Bible Belt. That was it. I was completely shaken by the injustice, and I felt a real affinity and connection, as you can from seeing a film, with Damien, and I reached out to him, and the rest was history.
THR: They couldn’t have made it easy for you to stay in touch.
Davis: It was really hard and expensive. I was in New York. My phone bills were $1,200 a month because the phones are really expensive in prison. We wrote. We have 5,000 letters we wrote to each other, so we did the best we could. We wrote to each other every day, we talked to each other every day, and we spent three hours a week together talking, so in essence, we probably talked and spent more time with each other than most couples do.
THR: Were they reluctant to let someone in solitary have someone come in?
Davis: He’s at least allowed to have one visit a week, and he’s allowed to have a telephone within solitary and to write letters. It’s restrictive. It was tough getting Amy in as much as we wanted to. They’re bad at media.
Echols: The phone calls, most people don’t realize how incredibly expensive it is. The prison has a contract with the phone company where they get 51 percent of the call. So sometimes for me to call someone, for a 15-minute phone call, was $25.
THR: What did you think when you read your early letters?
Davis: Traumatic. It’s so hard for me, because they’re so wonderful, and then you start reliving how hard all of that was and how heartbreaking it was.
Echols: It’s almost like looking back at kids. That was 17 years ago.
THR: There are so many death-row cases that are wrongly convicted. What do you think it is about this one that got so many people, celebrities and otherwise, interested?
Echols: Everybody always says what it is: Johnny says it, Eddie says it, Henry Rollins says it. Whenever they saw me, they identified with it. They knew that in the same situation, it would have been them. They could have been the ones with the targets on their backs if they had been in that situation. It galvanized them. Peter says what it was for him, when he saw it, he has a pathological hatred of bullies. When he sees people who are bigger and stronger beating up on people who can’t really fight back, it pisses him off. And when he looked at this case, that’s what he saw. He saw the state beating up on people who couldn’t defend themselves, and he wanted to help them.
THR: When you got out, what were the things that amazed you? I’m sure you kept in touch and knew about technology and such, but what were the little things that took you aback?
Echols: When I first got out, I would see things that looked to me like they would be so hard that it would send me into a panic. The very first time I went to the store, I remember going to K-Mart, and it was the very first time I had used a debit card. Whatever it was I was going to get, Lori said, "Here, use my card," because I didn’t even have one yet. So I get to K-Mart and I see this thing on the cashier’s thing, the grey box with numbers on it, and you’re supposed to slide the card through that. And I’m thinking, what the hell is this? Do I have to know a secret thing? I’d never seen anything in my life, and it’s absolutely panic-inducing. If I didn’t have people with me to show me how to do it... Stuff like that. That’s the hardest thing. Or just trying to navigate. I’d been locked in a box for almost 20 years, unable to go anywhere. So suddenly finding myself in a world where I had to navigate point A to point B. For the first two to three months, I was in a state of really, really deep shock and trauma.
THR: You’ve said you wrote your book because you are not your case; you have interests and a life beyond all the court issues. So what is a typical day now?
Echols: We’ve been on the road for two and a half months now, doing public speaking and the book signings, and now it’s like we’re transitioning into getting the word out about the documentary, without a break in between. So this really is a typical day for us. We’re looking forward to a day whenever we can relax a little bit and move on to things that aren’t necessarily connected with the case. I have an art opening on January the 5th, which I’m looking forward to. And that’s what we want to do in the future, just move forward.
THR: I love to go see movies, for example, and that’s the sort of thing I take for granted.
Echols: Whenever we get to see a movie, it’s like, wow, a free night!
Davis: We end up falling asleep.
Echols: In the theater!
Davis: We tried to see Cloud Atlas. We made it like a half hour in.
THR: It’s been tough to travel because of the Alford plea, right?
Echols: Yeah, when we were going to Canada, to the Toronto Film Festival, they denied me at first. They said no, you can’t come into the country, you’ve got a criminal record. And we had to go through hell for like 48 straight hours, being on the phone, being on email, nonstop, talking to people, trying to say please, okay, that’s not what this is. Finally, I think what changed it was I think the judge from the case -- not the one that sentenced me to death, but the one that presided over the hearing when I got out -- he called and spoke to immigration and said this guy’s not a threat, there’s no reason you shouldn’t let him in. And they finally let me in. It still has roots that reach into every part of our lives. Jason right now is in school; he wants to get his law degree and go on to help people in the same situation that we were in, but he can’t practice law with a criminal record.
THR: The movie points to one of the stepfathers that seems perhaps more likely to have done it. Now that you’re out, is that something you’re pursuing?
Echols: We’re trying. Everything being done on this case right now is being done by us, being done by the defense. The state is not going to do anything whatsoever, so we’ve followed up on a lot of stuff on him that hasn’t ended up being useful. For example, we tracked down the truck that he had at the time of the murders and did Luminol testing, and it showed that there had been blood spilled in the truck. But it was so old and degraded that they couldn’t tell who it belonged to. They did the same thing in his house; they found blood under the linoleum floor, but it was so old they couldn’t type it. Every single thing has to be followed up on, but you never know what is going to be the one thing that is the jackpot.
Davis: But we still have the tip line and are following up on any tip that comes in.
THR: It’s remarkable that something can be so obvious and naked, but a state just doesn’t feel pressure to do anything.
Echols: It’s politics. It’s absolute politics. All of these people involved, the judge, the prosecutor, the attorney general, they’re all elected officials. They’re looking at the situation as, "How can we play this best to win the next election? How can we get something out of this?" They’re not going to do anything whatsoever that there’s not anything for them.
THR: So many people, whether they’re famous or not, have become a part of it, too. Why do you think people who aren’t famous, who have little public sway, will march and get involved?
Davis: It’s amazing over the years how many people, from all over the world. Sometimes they’ve had this thing called World Awareness Day on the day they were arrested. There were things going on in Antarctica, Iceland, Russia. Whether it’d be a bake sale or concert, they really did bring people from around the world together on this, because they could relate to it.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin