After spending nearly two decades on death row on the flimsiest of evidence, Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three is free. He tells Karley Sciortino why he can’t yet put it all behind him
To get the essence of Damien Echols’ character you need only look at the footage of him, aged 19, being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. “You will be administered a continuous intravenous injection of a lethal quantity of an ultra-short acting barbiturate, in combination with a chemical paralytic agent, into your body, until you are dead,” is how the judge put it. In this moment, Echols stood with his head tilted back, almost arrogantly so. His posture was loose under his black t-shirt. Even as his girlfriend ran screaming from the courtroom, he never lost his cool. Ever sardonic, even in the face of death.
It was in 1994 that Echols was found guilty of the brutal murders of three eight-year-old boys. Convicted along with him and sentenced to life imprisonment were Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr, aged 17 and 16 respectively. Commonly known as the West Memphis Three, the teens were accused of murdering the children as part of a satanic ritual, but there were questions hanging over their guilt from the beginning. The story gained worldwide attention through the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which detailed a series of investigatory errors that indicated that the conviction was made under almost entirely false premises.
In the proceeding years, the perplexing and sensational case became the subject of two more Paradise Lost documentaries, multiple books and vast media and celebrity attention, in turn generating the West Memphis Three an army of devoted supporters. Finally, on August 19, 2011, after 18 years and 78 days in prison, the men were released on the grounds of a lack of DNA evidence. Echols’ release was one of the most high-profile releases of a death-row inmate in American history.
Today, in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Echols reclines in a floral armchair, next to a window overlooking Central Park. Dressed all in black, with skin of a striking pallor, he appears tired. He’s in New York as part of a press tour for his new memoir, Life After Death, and to promote West of Memphis, a new documentary by award-winning documentarian Amy Berg that highlights fresh evidence in the case. It’s been over a year since his release, but Echols has had little time to relax.
“People are always talking about this case like it’s extraordinary, but it really isn’t,” he says in his soft southern drawl. “This happens all the time – people get murdered, things get swept under the rug, and nobody thinks twice about it. We were three kids: bottom of the barrel, poor white trash. They thought they could just throw us in jail and we’d be forgotten. The only thing that made our case an exception was that there were film crews in the courtroom who caught everything on tape.” It’s an eerily poignant statement, given the recent string of criminal exonerations through DNA testing that have forced America to face the fallibility of its justice system. Since the first such case in 1989, over 300 people in the United States have been released from prison on the basis of new DNA evidence. Eighteen of them had served time on death row.
The bodies of the three young boys, Christopher Byers, Stevie Edward Branch and Michael Moore, were found in May 1993 in a drainage canal in Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, where almost a third of the population live below the poverty line and more than one in four people have less than a complete high-school education. It’s Bible-beltcountry, the land of teased hair, where people are born but rarely leave, and where time moves slowly, or not at all.
When found, the bodies of the children were stripped naked, and each had been hogtied with shoelaces – right wrist to right ankle, left wrist to left ankle. They appeared to have been mutilated, specifically Byers, who was found castrated. Unsurprisingly, the grotesque nature of the murders had emotions in the town running wild, intensified by rumours of rape, forced oral-sex and genital mutilation. The murders happened at a time when an irrational fear of satanic cult violence was sweeping America, fuelled by sensational media coverage. Police officers in West Memphis felt the crime had “cult” overtones, which led them to suspect Echols – a self-proclaimed Wiccan whose black clothing, long hair and affection for heavy metal and the occult made him an outsider in the small, conservative town.
Looking for information on Echols, police questioned an acquaintance of his, Misskelley, whose IQ of 72 classified him as mildly disabled. After being interrogated for nearly 12 hours, Misskelley confessed to the crime, implicating Echols and Baldwin (Echols’ close friend) along with him. There was immediate doubt surrounding the confession, as many felt it was coerced out of Misskelley through leading questions by the police, and because parts of Misskelley’s statement were inconsistent with the facts of the crime. Though he recanted within hours, it played a major part in the three convictions.
If a trial is a contest of competing narratives, then this particularly dramatic narrative – rumours of murders performed as part of a satanic ritual – had the power to outcompete truth, implicating Echols based on his character and appearance rather than concrete evidence. In keeping with the convoluted nature of the case, the conditions of the three men’s eventual release were bizarre. Under a deal with the prosecutors, they had to plead guilty to the murders, while still declaring their innocence – what is known as an “Alford plea”. For everyone involved in the defence, the deal was bittersweet.
“There are so many people and things and situations that formed the chain that got me out of prison, that if you remove one single link in that chain, I’d be dead right now,” says Echols flatly. “And the very first link in that chain was the first documentary, which I really feel played a huge part in saving my life.” The original courtroom footage, referenced by Echols earlier, was the basis for what would become Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Seen by millions, the documentary rallied celebrity support: Johnny Depp launched a campaign for their release, rock stars Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins performed benefit concerts to raise awareness and funds and Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson went so far as to finance a new investigation of the crime. But the heart of the movement was always about the kinship people felt with the three imprisoned young men, who became reluctant martyrs in the name of every kid who’s ever been picked on, singled out or called a freak. It’s a strange place to be in: solely by virtue of being wrongly convicted, you are suddenly a celebrity, a hero. But Echols always played the part well. He was the perfect bad boy: young, beautiful, irreverent, articulate. The courtroom footage of him is remarkable – goofing off for the camera, styling his hair, smiling charismatically, ultimately too innocent to think he could ever be convicted for a crime he didn’t commit.
There’s one particularly chilling interview with Echols on Court TV, filmed two years after his sentencing, in which an off-camera interviewer asks him if there’s anything he wishes he could change about his life before the trial. He responds: “I don’t think I’d change anything that’s ever happened in my entire life. I don’t think there was anything I could do to change (what happened). What, become a clone? Give up my personality? Give up my identity? Just march along like everyone else? I’d rather die.”
Following his release, Echols and his wife (who he fell in love with and married while in prison) moved to New York City, where they lived for a year before relocating to Salem, Massachusetts, last autumn. As the site of the most famous witch trials in history and a modern Mecca for alternative spirituality, it’s an all-too-fitting home for Echols, who became passionate about energy work and meditation while incarcerated.
“Salem is the only place in the world where I’m in the majority,” he laughs. “While I was in prison, I was ordained in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism. I also had to learn Reiki and Qi Gong energy-working techniques, because on death row there’s no medical care, because there’s no point in spending time and money on someone you’re going to kill. I was in solitary confinement for ten years, I didn’t see sunlight for almost a decade, and I was eating garbage. There were times when I was so sick that I literally thought I was going to die before the night was over – times when I was in the most horrendous pain – and the only things I had to rely on were these energy techniques.”
Echols also devoted a large amount of his time inside to reading and writing. Despite dropping out of school in ninth grade (the highest formal education of anyone in his family), he is an autodidact who read obsessively from a young age, including thousands of books while incarcerated. “For the first few years I was in prison I couldn’t write, because I was so psychologically scarred by the way the police and lawyers had taken my own writing and twisted it, in order to use it against me,” he says, referring to things he’d written as a teenager which dealt with the occult, which were later used as evidence of his Satanism. “I really had to force myself to work through those emotional and psychological blocks to write.” In 2005, he self-published his first book, an autobiography titled Almost Home. While inside he also wrote lyrics with Pearl Jam and Michale Graves of the Misfits. His new memoir, Life After Death, avoids the details of the case, instead discussing his life on death row, as well as his childhood.
Something that is clearly absent from Echols’ story is his family, who do not appear in the documentaries. “I’ve never really been close to my family,” he says. “My father left when I was seven, and my mother gave me away to my grandmother when I was three years old because she couldn’t raise both me and my sister. So my grandmother was really the only person I considered family, but she died when I was in jail waiting to go to trial. I saw my sister maybe twice in the entire 18 years I was in prison. My biological mother came to see me a handful of times, but it was always pretty fucking horrible.”
However, in light of a new Hollywood film being made about the case, Echols’ mother and sister have suddenly appeared in the media, and have a book coming out detailing their side of the story. “The funny thing is, I haven’t known my mother or sister to read a book in their entire lives, but now they’ve apparently written one,” he laughs. “Somebody brought to my attention recently that they were selling t-shirts with my tattoos on them. They’re not making any effort to reach out to me, but they’re selling t-shirts, keychains, coffee mugs, and fucking cellphone covers.” Echols tells this story without revealing the slightest bit of anger. Always calm, always in control. “I don’t hate them,” he says. “I just want to stay as far away from them as possible.”
Filming is underway on the movie, the Atom Egoyan-directed Devil’s Knot, which stars Reece Witherspoon and Colin Firth and is based on Mara Leveritt’s book of the same name. It credits Baldwin and Misskelley among its executive producers, a fact which has led to a public falling-out between Baldwin and Echols. “That movie is foul,” says Echols. “They’re saying it’s based on Leveritt’s book, but nothing in it is accurate. In the screenplay there’s a scene where Reese Witherspoon, who plays one of the victim’s mothers, wakes up in the middle of the night and sees me standing in her bedroom with blood running from my mouth, from when I’d been chewing on the bodies. There’s another scene where I take a woman to a satanic orgy and cut her and drink her blood. And the people making the film say, “Oh, that’s just a dream sequence,” or, “It’s just illustrating what someone is thinking.” But you know when they make the trailer that those are the scenes they’re going to stitch together.” The movie also completely cuts Echols’ wife from the story, who, he says, did 85 per cent of the work on the case, and quit her job to work on it full-time. “But I’m not allowed to say much more about it,” he says, “because they’ll sue me.”
Since his release, Echols has also done some acting himself, playing a part in the upcoming IRL, about a girl’s (Sky Ferreira) dark adventures in NYC. The 20-minute short was directed by Grant Singer and written by Dazed contributor Patrick Sandberg. “I play a guy who works in a gun shop who tries to convince Sky that she needs weapons to protect herself against the monsters in the big city,” he laughs. “I liked doing it, mainly because it felt very ‘New York’.”
But Echols can’t devote his life to movies and meditation and casually hanging out with Johnny Depp just yet, for there is still work to be done. Because the West Memphis Three technically pleaded guilty, no further action can be taken in the case until the three are exonerated. West of Memphis focuses on this goal, and highlights a possible new suspect in Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of victim Stevie Branch. The film reveals that new forensic tests found DNA from Hobbs (who has a history of violence) at the crime scene, and displays expert testimony stating that the “mutilation” of the bodies, originally thought to be evidence of a satanic ritual, was more probably the result of post-mortem animal predation in the wooded area where the bodies were found.
In light of the accusations against him, Hobbs had created his own, early-2000’s-looking website, terryhobbs.com, with a header-bar that reads, “I am a quiet, laidback man who loves my children and is always there when needed. I love to play guitar and write uplifting music – every message is positive.” If you scroll down you will also notice off-putting photos of him “goofily” re-enacting stabbings in a wooded area with his family members, accompanied by such captions as, “The day was beautiful and we enjoyed it like a regular family. Nobody was fighting and there wasn’t any drama.”
“The person who killed those three kids is still out there walking the streets,” says Echols sternly. “I’m not pointing a finger at anyone, I’m just saying we should let the evidence speak for itself. Not myth or rumour or ghost stories, but concrete, physical evidence. There is significant evidence against Hobbs – there’s DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene and three eyewitnesses who say they saw him on the day of the murder, with all three boys.
“It makes me feel physically sick to talk about this,” he continues. “The only thing I can compare it to is being car sick. But as hard as it is to keep ripping open these wounds, I understand that it’s a necessary evil. I’m looking forward to the day when I can finally put this all behind me, but this isn’t the time. This isn’t that day.”
West of Memphis is out on December 21
This interview was taken from the January 2013 Issue of Dazed & Confused
Photography by Michael Avedon