Damien Echols After West Memphis

Published September 18, 2012

ABOVE: DAMIEN WAYNE ECHOLS. PHOTO COURTESY OF PETER ASH LEE.

“I have the shape of a dead man on the wall of my cell… I can’t help but feel that erasing it would be like erasing the fact he ever existed. That may not be such a bad thing, all things considered, but I won’t be the one to do it” Damien Echols, Life After Death

Few people can imagine what it’s like to be Damien Echols. An example of sheer human resilience, Echols spent 18 years on death row—from age 18 to 36—for a crime it is increasingly clear he did not commit. Raised in a conservative Arkansas town in extreme poverty, Damien and his friends Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were the victims of a modern-day witch hunt. In spite of all DNA evidence to the contrary, Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were convicted for the murder of three eight-year-old boys, with Echols as the oldest singled out for death row. Their alleged motive for the crime: a ritual satanic sacrifice.

Were it not for the series of HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost, Echols would probably be long deceased, his case unnoticed by the rest of the country. Two filmmakers from HBO traveled to Arkansas when they first heard about the case in the hopes of filming a salacious exposition of teenage corruption and depravity. What the documentary filmmakers found, however, were three bewildered children, grieving parents, and a town obsessed with the occult. HBO released the first volume of Paradise Lost nearly two years after the incarceration of Baldwin, Misskelley, and Echols. The three young men suddenly found themselves at the center of a grassroots activism, people from around the country outraged that such a miscarriage of justice could occur in the land of the free. In spite of a growing number of supporters, including famous musicians and actors such as Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Johnny Depp, and filmmaker Peter Jackson, Arkansas only released the so-called “West Memphis Three” last year, in August of 2011, and has yet to exonerate them.

Clearly, the case has eaten away Echols’ adult life—it deprived him of his freedom, future, career, and relationship with his son, who was born shortly before Echols’ prison sentence. Until Echols and his childhood friends are cleared of the crime, it remains a defining force. Nevertheless, Echols is more than just the figurehead of the “West Memphis Three.” As simple as it sounds, Echols is a person, and one who longs to escape his ongoing victimization. Damien’s new memoir, Life After Death, reveals Damien as intelligent and sensitive, with literary aspirations. It is fascinating to read not just for its story, but also for the emotive way in which Damien is able to relay it.

Here, Interview talks to Damien about his faith in humanity, soulmates, and his future plans.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Hi, you’ll have to bear with us; the phone reception in here is really bad. We’re in the process of moving into a new house right at this moment, and things are kind of crazy.

EMMA BROWN: I’m sure they are. I can’t imagine what the past year must have been like for you.

ECHOLS: Oh, God, there’s no way to even describe it. We just got back from Toronto [Film Festival promoting new documentary West of Memphis] and we were doing, I guess probably 15 interviews, in a 12-hour period. It’s just exhaustion almost to the point of collapse.

BROWN: Are you going to take a holiday soon?

ECHOLS: No, there’s no time, we [are] literally moving into this house today, [and] we have to be back in New York on Monday to start doing the book publicity and tour and all of that.

BROWN: Did you have outside support before the first Paradise Lost documentary came out in 1996?

ECHOLS: Yeah. Just people who had seen the local news and coverage in newspapers and believed that we were innocent, but it was nowhere near the way it became after Paradise Lost. Before Paradise Lost came out, I would say you might get one letter a week from someone, maybe two. After Paradise Lost came out, I think the record I once got [was] 188 letters in one day.

BROWN: Oh wow. Did it restore your faith in humanity?

ECHOLS: Yes. That’s what I always tell people—that I had no faith in the justice system whatsoever, I had seen that it was corrupt to the core. The only thing I had faith in was humanity. That’s what kept hope alive that I would get out one day, the activism that people would partake in. Everything they did to try to get us out. I didn’t have any belief in the system at all; it was entirely the people who were writing to me, the people who were spreading the word about the case. It was just humanity in general.

BROWN: Do you feel obliged to become involved and help other people who might be in your situation?

ECHOLS: I definitely would like to. That’s one of the thing I hoped to accomplish when I was writing the book; even while I was writing it, I always felt that I wasn’t writing it entirely for myself. In some ways writing for me is really therapeutic and really cathartic; it’s like it scratches an itch deep inside of you that you can’t get to any other way. But at the same time, even when I was doing it, I always had the feeling that maybe it was going to mean something to someone else someday in some way, you know, that it was going to have an impact on other people. I would hope that just everything we went through—the injustices in our case—that people who see that and people who are touched by it, it will extend over into other cases, other areas, other people’s lives. Innocent people who may be on death row or in the prison system, it’ll make people realize that just because they see someone on TV, that doesn’t automatically mean they’re guilty.

BROWN: Yes, even the lighting and the music can change how you think about someone.

ECHOLS: Definitely. If the first thing you see flashed on the screen is a mug shot, then that automatically has a psychological impact on whoever’s seeing it. We were raised in a society to believe that the police are the good guys, they never lie—if they do, it’s one rogue cop who is separate from the rest—and in actuality, that’s not true. At the time that I was arrested, the entire West Memphis police department was under investigation by the FBI.

BROWN: Do you think it’s getting better?

ECHOLS: No, I actually think it’s getting worse by the day. It’s almost like you can’t tell the difference between the police and the military anymore. I see things all the time now; in the streets of New York, where we’ve been staying for the past year, you would walk down the streets sometimes and see cops standing on corners wearing full body armor and carrying assault rifles. It’s almost scary; it looks very much like a police state sometimes.

BROWN: A lot of your famous supporters are musicians—Eddie Vedder, Dave Navarro, Natalie Maines—why do you think musicians in particular gravitated towards your cause?

ECHOLS: I think it’s because most of them don’t fit in when they’re young. They don’t have an easy niche to fall into whenever they’re growing up. They’re outcast, they’re not jocks, they’re not cheerleaders, they’re not any of the things that people normally fall into, so they feel some sort of connection to that.

BROWN: Do you believe in soulmates?

ECHOLS: Yes, absolutely.

BROWN: You and your wife seem to have a really beautiful relationship.

ECHOLS: Yeah, we’ve been together for 17 years now. Really the only thing that kept me alive in there and kept me from losing my sanity was my spiritual practice—meditation—and Lorri.

BROWN: You met when she heard about your case and reached out to you in prison. Do you think you would have met Lorri regardless of the circumstances?

ECHOLS: Yeah, I would like to think so. That might sound crazy to a lot of people, but it just feels like what I’m meant to be doing, who I’m meant to be with. Really, it’s like a journey that we’re going on together, where we’re just learning so much from being together.

BROWN: You did quite a few interviews when you were released in August of 2011, and you mentioned how hard it was to adjust to really basic things such as using a fork, or walking without shackles chaining your ankles together, and I thought that was so awful. Do you still feel the same way after a year?

ECHOLS: Oh, constantly. It’s a little better in some ways, and it’s a little worse in some ways. I was, almost for the past decade that I was locked up, in solitary confinement. So I literally went from almost a decade of solitary confinement to being tossed back out to society one day. I was in a state of extreme and absolute shock and trauma, it put me into a state of shock all the way to the core of my being. There was just really no way I could deal with it psychologically, and it’s a very slow, gradual process. I started to come out of it more and more as time goes by, which in some ways makes things harder and in some ways it makes things easier. Talking about this case, for example, when I first got out, it was a little easier than it is now because the more I come out of the shock and the more I come out of the trauma, the more I just don’t want to talk about it anymore. When I was in shock, it numbed me to a certain degree, and I was just led through whatever I had to do on a daily basis.  So it gets easier and it’s harder.

BROWN: What is one of your favorite places that you’ve been to over the past year?

ECHOLS: One of my favorite places I’ve been to… I don’t know. Usually, whenever I’m in New York, I would spend a lot of time at the tattoo gallery just because it was a place that felt really comforting and like home to me. The people that worked there were the first friends I made after I got out of prison, people that didn’t have anything to do with the prison situation at all. It was like starting life up new for me again, so there was a sense of comfort and safety there. I would spend a lot of time there; some days I would just go down there and spend all day there. 

BROWN: If you could interview anyone, whom would you most like to interview and why?

ECHOLS: I don’t know, maybe Nick Cave, and I guess because whenever I first read his book And The Ass Saw The Angel, it was something I really could identify with. I read all these Southern writers, like Carson McCullers and all these different, really prestigious authors that people say that they embodied the South. When I would read them, I didn’t feel that they were writing about the South that I came from. To me, it was like reading about the rich people’s South, but when I read the book by Nick Cave, I was absolutely blown away about how much he seemed to get exactly what the world where I came from was like. It amazed me to find out later that he’s not even from the South, he’s from Australia.  So maybe just to do an interview about that, just to get into the similarities between parts of Australian culture and parts of Deep South culture.

BROWN: Do you feel Southern?

ECHOLS: Yeah, I guess I do. I mean it’s where I’ve spent pretty much my entire life at up until the past year.

BROWN: Was Nick Cave’s book the first book that really struck you?

ECHOLS: Oh, no. I couldn’t really say what the first book was that really struck me was, because reading was always such a huge part of my life you know, ever since I was in elementary school. I can’t even remember anymore the first book I read. I remember when I really started to fall in love with reading I would’ve been about 10 or 11 years old and I started reading Stephen King novels for the first time. That’s when I was really, really just hooked on reading.

BROWN: Have you gotten to meet him?

ECHOLS: No, but I would love to one day.

BRWON: And I wanted to ask you about your book cover for Life After Death, designed by Shepard Fairey. How did that come about?  

ECHOLS: I had never heard of him before I got out of prison. You know, I was in there for almost 20 years, so I didn’t know much of anything about pop culture. Whenever my editor told me, “Your book cover is going to be done by Shepard Fairey,” I was like, “Who’s that?” I had no idea the impact he had or the influence he had on pop culture and the modern arts scene or anything else, I just knew that everybody else was really excited about the fact that he was doing it.  When I did finally see it, see the finished product, I could understand why they were so excited. I absolutely love that cover I think it’s beautiful and amazing.

BROWN: Do you know the graffiti artist Banksy?

ECHOLS: Oh, I’ve heard the name, but that’s it.

BROWN: I think you’d like him. What do you want to be doing in five years?

ECHOLS: Well, I’ve always loved writing, I probably started writing when I was 12 years old; there was something about it that always seemed to scratch an itch inside of me that nothing else could reach. So, I think I would like to keep writing. I guess the main thing I would hope happens with Life After Death, is that people like my voice enough that they would want to hear me or read me write about things other than the case, and that it would allow me to continue that writing career. At the same time I think I’d like to also have my own little center somewhere here in town where I could share some of the meditation techniques with other people that allowed me to survive in prison for 18 years.

BROWN: Would you write fiction or non-fiction?

ECHOLS: Oh, definitely non-fiction.

BROWN: I know you get this question a lot, but what sort of music are you listening to at the moment? Your penchant for Metallic and musical tastes were so heavily featured in Paradise Lost and used against you in your trial.

ECHOLS: Oh, a little bit of everything—I’d say more than anything right now Danzig; it’s familiar to me from when I was out, but, at the same time, it’s unfamiliar in that there are a lot of new albums that I haven’t heard before.

BROWN: What is one question you would wish people would stop asking you?

ECHOLS: Anything about the case, to be honest. I’ve answered every single question that you could possibly imagine about the case and I’ve had to answer them over and over and over and over. I’m just tired of talking about it.

BROWN: Do you think you’ll ever be able to be free of it?

ECHOLS: I don’t know. Maybe one day, I would hope so. Who knows?

LIFE AFTER DEATH IS NOW AVAILABLE VIA BLUE RIDER PRESS. DAMIEN ECHOLS WILL BE SIGNING BOOKS WITH JOHNNY DEPP AT BARNES AND NOBLES UNION SQUARE IN NEW YORK ON SEPTEMBER 21. WEST OF MEMPHIS, A NEW, SUNDANCE-SELECTED DOCUMENTARY ON ECHOLS’ CASE OPENS DECEMBER 25 IN NEW YORK AND LA.