It’s been 16 months since Damien Echols walked out of the prison where he spent 18 years for his purported role in the murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. Echols and his two co-defendants—Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley—became known as the “West Memphis Three,” and they had fought in the courts for nearly two decades to clear their names.
The three were teenagers in 1993 when the killings occurred, and Echols found himself cast by authorities as the ringleader; police and prosecutors argued, based on little more the suspects’ taste for heavy metal music, their perceived role as outsiders in the community and a questionable confession by Misskelley, that they killed the boys during a satanic ritual. Echols was sentenced to death and Baldwin and Misskelley to life in prison.
Subsequently, a wealth of DNA data, witness recantations and disclosure of problems with the initial investigation cast serious doubt on their guilt. Celebrities including Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder rallied around the West Memphis Three and kept a spotlight on the case, as did several books and documentaries. In 2011, Echols’ attorney Stephen Braga proposed that the three accept an Alford plea, under which they maintained their innocence but agreed that the state might have enough evidence to convict them. They were released on August 19, 2011.
Echols published a book about his experience earlier this year and is promoting a new documentary about the case, called West of Memphis. The film, produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and directed by Amy Berg, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will enter wider release on December 28.
The National Law Journal spoke with Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, about the case, his life outside of prison and his view of the justice system. Their answers have been edited for length.
National Law Journal: What have you been doing in the year since your release?
Damien Echols: You’re looking at it. We’ve been on the road for the past 2 1/2 months now, because I had a book come out in September. I wrote probably 85 percent of the book while I was in prison, and I had to finish it up once I was out here and go through the editing process. When it came out in September, we went on a tour and did book signings. Now, that’s transitioned into getting the word out about the documentary.
We also finally got a house in Salem, Mass., a couple months ago. When we do get a day off, we rush back and then frantically try to hang up curtains or put down carpet. When we left Arkansas, we left like refugees. I did not have a single penny in my pocket. I didn’t have a change of clothes. We had nowhere to go. The past year has been spent scrambling, trying to get some sort of foundation under us to build a real life.
NLJ: What has been the biggest adjustment for you?
Echols: Human interaction. There’s all the other things like computers and the way machines are now—how they play such a huge role in people’s lives—there was none of that when I went in. The last time I’d seen a computer was 1986. At the same time, I’d been in solitary confinement for almost a decade by the point
The hardest part was just dealing with people again. Figuring out how to talk to them and have a normal conversation. But there are so many things, like learning to walk again—I hadn’t walked without chains on my feet in almost 20 years. Or how to use silverware—you don’t have silverware in prison; it’s considered a weapon. How to use an ATM machine. Cellphone. How to navigate from point A to point B. It was incredibly traumatic for several months.
NLJ: Was there a point in your case when you thought you’d had a major breakthrough and that things would go your way?
Echols: Many times. It gets to the point where you get jaded, because it’s almost like being on a rollercoaster. There was a point when a woman who lied on me—she said I took her to all these satanic meetings—she came forward and admitted she made it up to help the cops so they wouldn’t send her to jail for credit card fraud; whenever the DNA comes back. When all these things happen, you think, “Surely now someone is going to step in and put a stop to this. There’s no way they can keep covering this up and go forward with this.” But they never do. It gets to the point where finally, when I heard a piece of news, I’d think, “OK, we’ll see how it works out.”
NLJ: What went though your mind when your lawyer, Stephen Braga, brought up the Alford plea with you? It’s a pretty unusual legal maneuver.
Echols: I couldn’t even believe what I was hearing. Just the possibility that I wasn’t going to die in that prison cell. “Am I hearing this right? Is there a possibility that I’m going to walk out of here before the week is over?” You can’t even take it in.
NLJ: How does the case affect your daily life?
Echols: A lot of our day-to-day life is this. To be honest, talking about this is a living hell. It’s almost like you’re not even out of prison sometimes, because the case is all you ever get to talk about. You can’t move on. It’s misery. But at the same time, if we don’t keep doing it, we won’t ever have a sense of closure. We won’t ever be exonerated. The person who belongs in prison won’t ever be in prison. The people who did this to us will never be held responsible for what they’ve done. We have to let the state of Arkansas know that we’re not going to go anywhere until they do to the right thing.
NLJ: Are you seeking a pardon?
Echols: Fuck a pardon. A pardon means you’re asking forgiveness for something you’ve done. I didn’t do it, so I don’t want a pardon. What we want is exoneration.
NLJ: Do you have any faith in the justice system at this point?
Echols: None. The justice system is corrupt to the core. What I have is faith in humanity. I have faith in people. That’s what got us out of prison. Not the judicial system, but the fact that the judicial system realized they were being watched by everyday, ordinary citizens who were doing everything they could to bring more light to the situation.
NLJ: How should we reform the justice system?
Echols: You have to take politics out of it. Judges, prosecutors, attorneys general—all these people are elected officials. That’s their No. 1 priority—winning that next election. Justice will always take a back seat. The general public, from what they see on TV, have this idea that just because you have DNA evidence or someone lied on the stand, they think, “Oh, it’s a slam-dunk thing. The guy is going to go home. They will overturn the case. They will arrest the right person.” That’s not true. That’s only 50 percent of the fight. You have to take the politics out of it.
NLJ: You had a lot of high-profile supporters. Why do you think so many people got involved in your case?
Echols: I don’t know about the attorneys, but a lot of the other people who got involved, the higher-profile people, whether it was Johnny Depp or Eddie Vedder, they always said they felt like they could identify with the situation. They knew if they were in that same place in that same time, it would have been them with the targets on their backs. What got Peter [Jackson] involved was that he hates bullies. He saw the legal system beating up on someone who couldn’t fight back, so he wanted to get involved and help someone who couldn’t help himself.
NLJ: How many attorneys were involved in your defense?
Lorri Davis: Twelve to 15, maybe even 16.
NLJ: How involved were you in the legal aspects of the case?
Echols: Lorri did 85 percent of the work on this case. She did more than the attorneys and investigators put together. There were times when we couldn’t even afford to pay legal bills anymore, and she would take out personal loans to pay those. We had attorneys who agreed to take the case and then refused to do anything. We had attorneys who stole money from us. It was Lorri who was on the phone every day, driving them and making them do what they were supposed to. In the end, we ended up with people who were really great, like Steve Braga—people who were genuinely interested in the case. They really cared about this case and put themselves on the line.
NLJ: Do you have any thoughts on the importance of pro bono work?
Davis: Just do it. Just take the time. The cases are hard, but they are rewarding. A lot of the celebrities and attorneys who eventually came on board told us that this case took them out of the day-to-day, where they don’t get any fulfillment out of what they do. I think cases like this do that, and they are inspiring. Just start doing it.
Contact Karen Sloan at email@example.com.