After 18 years in death row, with much of that time spent in solitary confinement, locked down 23 hours a day at the Varner Unit Supermax, Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three now walks free – but he is not exonerated.
Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted for the murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993 in what prosecutors called a satanic ritual killing. Prosecutors asserted that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were part of a satanic cult.
The three men now walk free in large part because of a new documentary directed by Amy Berg and produced by the couple behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. The film, West of Memphis, lays out the key findings of an investigation, more than a year long, funded by Jackson and Walsh after they got involved with Echols’ defense team and the fight to free Echols and clear his name based upon new evidence the documentary brings to light.
The film reveals how prosecutors and politicians resisted questioning the validity of the original conviction at all costs, despite new evidence that has emerged over the years contradicting their version of the events, and a fundamentally corrupt criminal justice system bent on shutting the case once and for all. The case of the West Memphis Three also has been covered in HBO’s “Paradise Lost” series and is the subject of a fictional feature film, The Devil’s Knot, released in 2013.
Many have hailed the three teenagers’ conviction as a modern-day witch hunt because prosecutors presented almost no hard evidence tying them to the scene of the crime but painted a horrific picture of a brutal killing based on the young men’s dark aesthetic.
Since Echols’ release, he has authored a memoir, Life After Death, and now lives with his wife, Lori Davis, whom he married while on death row and who has spent a tireless 16 years working toward his freedom, in the fitting town of Salem, Massachusetts.
Truthout spoke with Damien Echols during an event at the University of North Texas, which screened the new film.
Candice Bernd: How hard was it to adjust to life outside of death row after you were released?
Damien Echols: It was incredibly hard, just because not only had I been in prison for 18 years, I had also been in solitary confinement for the last 10 years. So just dealing with human interaction alone was just something that I was completely unprepared for. To say it’s overwhelming doesn’t even come close to describing it. But then you also take into account other things, like the fact that I have extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, was completely technologically illiterate, it really was like being an alien in an entirely new world and having to figure out every single thing you do on a daily basis by yourself. It took every ounce of energy I had just to make it through the day for several, several months.
CB: What was it like to learn of the flood of support you received while on death row from rock stars and celebrities? Did you ever imagine that your case would blow up and become something that reached the magnitude it did?
DE: No, but at the same time, when I was in prison, I would call Lori every single morning, and she would tell me what was going on. She would tell me Johnny [Depp] is doing this or Eddie Vedder is doing this or Peter Jackson is doing this. So I knew what was going on, but at the same time, as soon as you hang that phone up, you’re going right back to just trying to survive another day in prison. So stuff like that is almost something that’s happening in a completely separate world. It almost like something you see on TV. It doesn’t have a direct impact on your daily survival when it comes to prison life.
CB: So you’re free, but you’re not actually exonerated. I wanted to ask about the Alford plea, which is kind of an arcane judicial doctrine. Why was it used in your case?
DE: The Alford plea. I had never even heard of such a thing when we got this. The prosecutor got together with my attorneys, and they came up with this thing called an Alford plea, which basically means that you are accepting the guilty plea that the state offers you – but at the same time you are legally allowed to maintain your innocence – makes no sense whatsoever. In essence, what it comes down to and what it’s for is it’s a legal way that the state can get you out of their hair, but at the same time they can’t be held responsible for what they did to you. It lets them off the hook as far as lawsuits and things like that are concerned. Also, even now the state of Arkansas has never, ever had any exoneration. Nobody on death row has ever been exonerated by Arkansas. So this, us having to take this plea, allows them to maintain that record.
CB: Can you just talk about how Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh came to be involved in your case? What was it like to have their support?
DE: I can’t remember how they came to be involved, because they were far more in contact with Lori than they were with me. She would be the one you would have to ask about when and how, but over time I can tell you that they became closer to us than my own flesh-and-blood family is. I absolutely love them dearly. They not only helped us out with the case, but when I got out I also had nothing. I didn’t have anything in my pocket. I didn’t have a suit of clothes to change into. I had nowhere to go. If it wasn’t for them helping me whenever I got out of prison, I mean, really, in essence, I was homeless.
CB: Can you talk about your meditation and your spirituality and how it helped you survive on death row?
DE: It seems like most people out here don’t put a great deal of energy into it. It’s something that they think pays off once you’re dead or in the afterlife or something like that. For me, spirituality, to be of any importance, has to be something you can apply to everyday life, that’s practical, that benefits you in some way in your daily existence. And one of the things, for me, by the time I got out, I was sitting anywhere from five to seven hours a day of meditation. Over the years that I was there I received ordination in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism, that was the tradition that used to train the Samurai in ancient Japan. I also had to learn a lot of energy work, things like Reiki, Qigong, Tai Chi, just because in prison, especially on death row, they’re not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. It just doesn’t make sense. So there were times I had been beaten severely over the years, at one point; I was beaten so bad that I started to piss blood. I had been hit in the face, and it caused a bunch of nerve damage in my teeth, and there are no caps or crowns or root canals or anything like that in there. Your choices are live in pain or let them pull your teeth out. And I didn’t want to live without teeth. So I had to find some way to deal with the pain – that’s where the energy work came in.
I think a lot of people, whenever they practice spiritual traditions like this, they go through this period of wondering, ‘Am I actually doing something or is this just mental masturbation. Am I playing mind games with myself?’ And I never had to go through that. Because if I’m in extreme pain and I do something and the pain is gone, then I see that it works. I never have to wonder, ‘Am I actually doing something here?’ It became something that I was extremely passionate about and still am. That’s what I do. I have a place in Salem, Massachusetts, where we live now, and also in Boston, where that’s what I love doing, teaching meditation, teaching energy work.
But it made me realize, there are so many things dismissed in the Western world. Just for example, basically a lot of what I do is basically like acupuncture without the needles. And I found out through studying that in the United States we were told that there was no such thing as acupuncture all the way up until the 1970s. It was only when Richard Nixon was president and he went over to China and saw with his own eyes and came back and said ‘Yes, I saw it. There is such a thing,’ did Western doctors start to admit that it was real. Before then, Americans had been told it was a Chinese fairy tale, an Asian myth, there was no such thing. So it made me just wonder and also be amazed at how many things are possible that get dismissed or discredited due to lack of understanding or information. I’ve discovered a lot of those things over the years, just through the spiritual practices.