Catching Up with Damien Echols, Former Death Row Inmate and a Member of the West Memphis Three

More than 20 years ago, Echols and two of his friends were convicted of the "satanic" murders of three eight-year-old boys. It took 18 years and a long legal battle to set them free.

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May 21 2015, 5:40pm

Damien Echols awaits trial, 1993. Photo by Joe Berlinger. From 'Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.' All rights reserved.

If you're familiar with the case of the West Memphis Three, you'll be aware that attempting to condense the complexity, length, and injustice of it all into a few paragraphs is near impossible. If you're unfamiliar with it, then watching the excellent

Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries—as well as Amy Berg's equally fantastic West of Memphis—serves as a good introduction to this astonishing story.

In short, the West Memphis Three are Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. They were three boys from West Memphis, Arkansas, aged between 16 and 18, who in 1993 were arrested and convicted for the murder and sexual mutilation of three eight-year-old boys—Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. Due to the apparent acts of mutilation it was accused that what had taken place was in fact a satanic ritual—human sacrifices. The pressure on the police to solve the heinous crime was huge, which, combined with the town having a history of supposed witchcraft and satanic practices, left a community shattered and in terrifying fear. Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were picked up as they were known friends and were into what a lot of alienated teenagers were into: heavy metal, wearing black, being left alone, and doing their own thing.

Misskelley had profound learning disabilities and was interrogated, almost entirely off-record, for what varying reports put between two to 12 hours. After that period he gave what the lawyers for the defendants claimed to be a coerced confession on tape. An expert witness was called to make the case that the confession was forced, but was unable to present all of his prepared testimony. Echols was painted as the ringleader and, when convicted, was sentenced to death, with the other two receiving variations on life sentences. There was no physical evidence, and beyond Misskelley's allegedly coerced—and, in many places, factually inaccurate—confession, there was nothing to justify their convictions bar a "they look the type" mentality.

What came next was 18-plus years of incarceration as they fought to prove their innocence. They were finally released in 2011, but as they were waiting to introduce new exonerating DNA evidence to a Federal Court Appeal (something that could have taken years; years they didn't have, as Echols's execution was getting ever closer) they were offered a very rare form of plea know as an Alford Plea. An Alford Plea is a guilty plea of a defendant who proclaims he is innocent of the crime but admits that the prosecution has enough evidence to prove that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Essentially, it meant that the three were allowed to be released based on time served, but were, in the eyes of the law, still guilty. This is problematic for numerous reasons, not least in the fact that after two decades on, most of it spent on death row, Echols is still classified as a guilty man (he cannot legally contest the case or sue the state). But it also covers up all the injustice that led to this situation in the first place.

It's a horrendous case, and the above really is only a snapshot of the horror of it all. However, Damien Echols is now free, happy, and in love. In fact, he's been the latter for quite some time. He met his wife, Lorri Davis, after she started writing to him after seeing Paradise Lost. A new paperback book, Yours for Eternity (due out on May 26 through Penguin Random House), is a collection of their letters throughout the prison years. I spoke with Damien about the letters and the case.

From left to right: director Bruce Sinofsky, Damien Echols, director Joe Berlinger, 2009, during the filming of 'Purgatory: Paradise Lost 3.' Photo by Bob Richman, courtesy of Joe Berlinger. All rights reserved.

VICE: What was it like rereading the letters and reliving those memories?
Damien Echols: Honestly, it was painful. The only thing I can compare it to is if... imagine that today you found a journal that you had written when you were 14 or 15 and started reading it, and had to see how much you had changed and grown as a person, and look back on them. It's kind of embarrassing.

In some letters from 1996 you express a real sense of optimism about getting released after the screening of Paradise Lost. What are your memories of that period and the impact of the film?
I started to feel like they weren't going to be able to get away with this because so many eyes were watching what they were doing—that they weren't going to be able to carry this out in secrecy and sweep it under the rug. So that was part of where that [optimism] came from, but part of it also came from just being young and naïve. When you're that young you don't have that much experience of the system, and pretty much everything you've been taught about the justice system comes from TV and movies: innocent until proven guilty; the good guy always wins; the truth always comes out. You've been fed this lie your whole life until you really believe it, so I think part of me was just still young and naïve and had been brought up on that mental diet of optimistic crap, and the other part of me was just seeing the results of Paradise Lost when it was having an effect on the world.

Related: Watch our film 'Young Reoffenders,' about a group of young men from Oxford who are trapped in a cycle of crime and self-abuse.

And I suppose, with always maintaining your innocence, you must have just presumed that it was only a matter of time until everyone else was on your side?
Yeah. While I was going through the trial I was just thinking, Surely this is going to come out OK. Surely, at any minute, somebody is going to fix this. I was thinking that these are adults I'm dealing with—surely one of them has enough intelligence to realize what's been going on here, to put a stop to it. And you keep thinking that all the way up until the point when they come back into the room and say, "We're going to kill you."

Your original execution date would have actually been yesterday, wouldn't it?
Yeah, that's right. I was sentenced on May 5, 1994. If they would have had their way, I would have been dead yesterday. It was a weird thing, because one of the directors of Paradise Lost, Bruce Sinofsky, passed away, and I was speaking at his memorial yesterday and it had me thinking just how big an impact he had had on my entire life in general, and how I would have been dead 21 years to that date yesterday if it were not for the ball that he set rolling.

Damien Echols on Arkansas Death Row, 2009, during the filming of 'Purgatory: Paradise Lost 3.' Photo by Bob Richman courtesy of Joe Berlinger. All rights reserved.

I read a quote of yours that said, "Studies say that one out of every ten people executed by the US is innocent. If one out of ten planes crashed, would you have faith in airlines?" Now, if one in ten are innocent, the percentage of those people who get documentaries made on them, receive celebrity support, public funding, etc., must be even smaller. What was it about you and your case that drew people to make a film about it if there are so many other cases of injustice out there?
Actually, when [filmmakers Bruce and Joel] initially started this project they heard about it via an article in the New York Times from someone who worked at HBO, and they said, "There's this case down in Arkansas and it's really interesting—it's about kids killing kids, and there's all this weird satanism and human sacrifice involved. We want you to go down and film this trial because this is going to be horrible but interesting." So when they arrived in Arkansas they presumed it was an open and shut case, that we were guilty and they were just coming to film the trial of these three guilty kids who had killed three other kids. Then, when they got here, they realized, Oh, this isn't what's going on here at all. So what drew them to us was the sensationalism of it all; everything the prosecutor said—orgies, human sacrifice, devil worship—because that was the only way they could convict because there was no physical evidence against us whatsoever. It was garbage like that, and that's what they used to scare people and to convict us, but in the end it was also what their undoing was because people were like, "Wait a minute, these are some outrageous stories, so we want to see what is going on here." It was the very same thing that they tried to murder us with that blew up in their faces.

In one of the documentaries you say that you feel like you would have just been executed in secret if it were not for the public and media interest in the case. Do you still feel this way now?
Absolutely, 100 percent. I don't think all the people who were involved in the case could be that incompetent and all believe they could be doing the right thing. I believe 100 percent with all my heart that they knew we were innocent and they just didn't care. They knew they had to make this go away and they figured we were an easy target. This would take away the problem and they could use it to move up the political ladder, and nobody would have to think about it ever again. I honestly believe the only reason why I'm not dead today is because people started watching what they were doing, and that's all they cared about. In the US the justice system is based on politics: All the prosecutors and judges and attorney generals, they are elected officials. They know that if they come out and have to admit they can't solve a crime or that they sentenced an innocent person to death, they know their political career is over. So they would rather kill me and sweep it under the rug and keep advancing than make a mistake and lose that political career.

READ ON VICE NEWS: The Mass Incarceration Problem in America

One of the main arguments for reducing prison sentences for nonviolent, first-time offenders—or, say, people who have just made a mistake while intoxicated—is that they enter the prison system as someone who has just made that mistake but come out as learned criminals. Being someone that was completely innocent and being surrounded by murderers and criminals of the worst kind, did you ever worry that a criminal mentality may seep in?
The first day I walked into prison, there's no mistaking the fact that you are walking into a whole new world. It doesn't feel the same; it's the coldest, most empty place. You look into people's eyes—and I don't just mean prisoners and criminals, I mean the guards, too; you're dealing with some of the most sadistic elements of humanity there—it's almost like you're dealing with... I can't even articulate how bad it is, how vile and revolting it is. Even from a young age—18, 19—when I went in, I saw that and I thought, I don't want to be like you. I don't want that inside me. I don't want that to infect me. So I consciously had to make the decision that I wasn't going to allow this kind of energy to take root in my life. Lorri and I speak at criminal justice classes and law schools, and one of the things I always tell people is that, in the almost 20 years that I was in prison, I did not see one single shred of anything that could be remotely considered a rehabilitation project, any kind whatsoever. The point of it is this: you're sending these people to prison and almost everyone who goes to prison is going to get out one day. The number of people who are in there to be executed or to stay in there their entire life is minuscule. Almost everyone is going to get out, and these people are going to be back in your churches, your schools, your grocery stores, your apartment building—so it's probably not the best idea to drive them insane with torture. Eventually it's going to blow up in your face.

You mention the guards, and there's a quote from your diaries that says, "In the movies it's always the other prisoners you have to watch out for. In real life it's the guards and the administration." But you also say in some of your letters that, after Paradise Lost aired, that some of the guards then believed you were innocent. Was your relationship with the prison guards up and down a lot?
I would say it was just down. Even the ones who think you're innocent, they're not going to go against the ones that don't. I mean, a lot of them just don't care—they don't care whether you're innocent, they don't care if you're guilty; some of them are just incredibly sadistic individuals who like to hurt people. They literally enjoy hurting people. I had to deal with a lot of those individuals, and even if a guard thinks you're innocent they're not going to go up against the ones like that. They know if they do that it's going to make their lives more miserable. The best you could hope for is them turning a blind eye. If some of the sadistic guards are beating you or starving you, the best you can get out of that situation is for the others not to join in on it. They're not going to put a stop to it.

Damien Echols awaits trial, 1993. Photo by Joe Berlinger. From 'Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.' All rights reserved.

Did you ever have time to feel pain or sympathy for all the other numerous victims involved in this horrible ordeal?
During it, the only thing you can focus on is trying to survive. It takes everything you have to put one foot in front of the other and make it through one day at a time. When you're being beaten and starved and in misery and being abused every day, having to look out and make sure nobody is going to murder you the next minute, you don't have a lot of time to sit around philosophizing and thinking about things in the outside world. When you're in there it's almost like a daydream or a fairy tale, something that may exist somewhere, that someone told you once that existed. You don't have anything other than the cold, brutal reality that you're spending every ounce of energy you have to get through.

Is this case still open? I know the situation in regards to the Alford Plea, but is it something that you are still pursuing and spending time on, or is it now something you are trying to put behind you?
Both. We'll never be able to completely put it behind us until it is reopened and we are exonerated, until the person who belongs in prison is in prison and the people who did this to us are held responsible for what they did. But I mean, just look at how long it took us until we got this far. The Alford Plea didn't happen overnight; it took nearly two decades of gut-wrenching struggle. So I don't think this is going to happen overnight, either.

Do you have any faith left in the justice system at all? And what needs to change?
I have no faith in the justice system whatsoever. I've seen how corrupt it is from a firsthand perspective, from the inside out. I saw how brutal and sadistic and money-driven and corporate and politically-driven the whole system is, so I have no faith in it whatsoever. I honestly don't know what it would take to fix—it's gone on so long and got so bad that I honestly don't know. I think it will one day reach a better point, just because I think there will come a time when people won't stand for it any more. When it becomes so blatantly obvious how bad it is, I think people will stand up and demand some sort of change, but it may have to get a lot worse before we start to see it get better.

Follow Daniel Dylan Wray on Twitter.

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