Visiting author finds new life after 18 years on death row

Damien Echols speaks at Rocky Mountain College.

Ean McLaughlin

Damien Echols speaks at Rocky Mountain College.

Sentenced three times to die, Damien Echols said Thursday that he is alive now because a few people were willing to challenge the system.

His message wasn’t lost on Rocky Mountain College students, each of whom, he said, could be a potential juror in some other capital murder case. Characteristically dressed all in black, wearing sunglasses and with both arms covered with tattoos, Echols transfixed the crowd with a slow, deep voice that at times sounded near tears and at other times sounded flat and emotionless, with occasional flashes of humor.

Echols was speaking to more than 300 people as part of Rocky’s Common Read program. In preparation for his talk, all Rocky freshmen and some other students read Echols’ memoir, “Life After Death.”

They listened in rapt attention as Echols, speaking without notes, briefly told the story of 18 years on death row, then took questions from an eager audience.

Echols was the key defendant in the West Memphis Three, teenagers who were convicted in 1994 of killing three 8-year-old boys in what prosecutors alleged was a satanic ritual. He was on death row until 2011, when all three men were released on an Alford plea, which allows defendants to maintain their innocence while acknowledging that there is enough evidence to convict them.

New DNA evidence failed to connect the teenagers to the crime, Echols said, and the state believed it would lose if a retrial were granted. Prosecutors also were concerned that they might be sued if a new jury determined that the three were innocent after all.

While Echols always has maintained his innocence, he said he did not hesitate to accept the Alford plea rather than a retrial of the case. His long prison term had damaged his eyesight and health, he said, and he was afraid he might not live long enough to survive more years of hearings and appeals.

At least a dozen books have been written about the case, and it has been covered in numerous newspaper and magazine articles. “West of Memphis,” a documentary about the case that Echols produced and edited down from 400 hours of footage, was shown at Rocky as part of Common Read events.

Controversy about the case continues to rage on the internet, where websites arguing both for the innocence and guilt of the West Memphis Three are bulwarked by hundreds of pages of trial testimony, witness statements, mental health reports and rank speculation.

It has all added up to unexpected celebrity for Echols, who started out with a rough childhood in Arkansas.

“My family lived in a state of poverty that was beyond poor,” he said. The family moved frequently and often stayed in trailer parks or in homes without adequate running water, heat or cooling. He had few friends, did poorly at school and was treated several times for mental illness.

He disliked his stepfather, who was suspected of sexual abuse, and he had an uneasy relationship with his natural parents. Instead, he immersed himself in heavy metal music, horror movies and black clothing. He also spent a lot of time in the public library.

“My life has been immersed in books from a very young age,” he said. “Life After Death” says that he read more than a thousand books while in prison.

Damien Echols signs a copy of "Life After Death" for one of about 35 Rocky students who lined up after his talk.

David Crisp/Last Best News

Damien Echols signs a copy of “Life After Death” for one of about 35 Rocky students who lined up after his talk.

Because of his supposed interest in the occult, he quickly became a suspect when the three boys were murdered. He and one of the other suspects, Jason Baldwin, were at Echols’ home when they were arrested.

“We were sitting in my living room when the cops started banging on the door,” he said. He was locked in a cell so small that there was no room to lie down, he said, and all three suspects were interrogated for hours. One of them, Jessie Misskelley, eventually confessed to the crimes and implicated the other two.

In “Life After Death,” Echols declines to blame Misskelley for his own conviction. Misskelley had a low IQ and was interrogated for up to 12 hours before admitting guilt under duress, Echols said.

Despite a lack of physical evidence, all three were convicted and Echols was sentenced to die and sent to death row. There he was placed in a cell whose previous occupant had traced a faint outline of his own body on a prison wall. Echols said he wound up spending nearly two decades in a dead man’s cell sleeping on a dead man’s mattress.

Although he described his time in prison as “living in hell on a daily basis,” he said that key people helped him survive. When he was first sent to death row, he was beaten by guards for the first 18 days until a deacon warned that if the beatings did not stop, he would tell the world.

He also met his future wife, Lorri Davis, while he was in prison, and she, more than anyone, helped him endure the long imprisonment. After “Paradise Lost,” a three-part documentary shown on HBO, helped draw attention to the case, Echols also drew support from celebrities such as actor Johnny Depp, musician Eddie Vedder and film director Peter Jackson.

He and Depp remain friends, Echols said, and Depp has occasionally visited him.

“I love him dearly,” Echols said. “He’s like a brother to me.”

He said the two never did anything constructive together, other than get tattoos and watch TV shows like “Honey Boo Boo.”

“For us, he was just a redneck from Kentucky who used to stay with us,” Echols said.

On one visit, paparazzi got wind of Depp’s presence and filled the street in front of Echols’ house.

“I don’t think I would really want his life for anything in the world,” Echols said.

After years in captivity, Echols said, the struggle to regain a normal life after his release was “absolutely crippling.” The only computer he had seen before his release had basically been a “glorified typewriter for rich people,” he said.

“I used to wake up in the night screaming all the time,” he said. He has forgotten nearly all of his first year out of prison and, even now, he said, he is only at about 75 percent of “operating capacity.”

A successful artist, he is part of Magick Revolution, a social awareness campaign that aims to transcend traditional boundaries between science, religions and other dogmas. He describes his work as a contribution to Western hermeticism, which includes the concept of going beyond ordinary reality to reach “a field of unlimited potential,” as the Magick Revolution website describes it.

“Life After Death” describes Echols’ interest in a variety of religions, ranging from Buddhism to Rosicrucianism, theosophy and many others. But he did not indicate in his talk that any of those religions had given him the spiritual strength to deal with those who he believes falsely accused him. Instead, he said, he simply doesn’t think much about the case, and he has watched no more than about 15 minutes of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy that helped set him free.

“It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s not for me. I’d rather be watching horror movies somewhere.”

The murders already have taken nearly 20 years of his life, he said, and he doesn’t want to devote any more time to them. Given a choice between eating ice cream and thinking about how he was screwed over in the past, he chooses ice cream, he said.

“If you hang onto your past too hard,” he said, “it will screw you out of your future.”

He said he would not get involved with the Innocence Project, a group of lawyers who work to free wrongly convicted people, because he did not want to relive those times. But he speaks to groups such as Rocky students in hopes of preventing what happened to him from happening to others.

Not only are students potential jurors, but they also can help change a system that targets poor people and attempts to hide its misdeeds from the public, he said.

“Nobody out here ever hears anything about what’s going on in prison,” he said.

Whatever he may have lost in life, Echols plans to make the most of what is left of it.

“If there’s one thing you learn in prison,” he said, “it’s how to fight through things.”

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