Thursday, October 11, 2012

Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three on surviving death row and proving his innocence

Posted By on Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 8:00 AM

Damien Echols talks about the West Memphis Three Friday night.
  • Damien Echols talks about the West Memphis Three Friday night.
In 1993, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were charged with killing three 8-year-olds in West Memphis, Arkansas. Despite its slapdash case, the prosecution convinced a jury in 1994 to send Echols to death row, and Baldwin and Misskelley to life in prison.

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, revealed the flaws in those convictions and drew national attention to the botched prosecution. There was no physical evidence against the teenage suspects (who had become known as the West Memphis Three), the police had missed a crucial series of leads, and witnesses later recanted their most damning testimony. A 2007 DNA analysis eventually ruled out Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as the killers, but it took another three years for the Arkansas Supreme Court to clear the way for the Alford pleas that would set the men free. They walked out of prison in 2011.

Echols has written a memoir, Life After Death, which details his imprisonment. He speaks and signs copies of the book at 7 p.m. Friday at Unity Temple on the Plaza (707 West 47th Street). See for tickets ($26) and information on the Midwest Innocence Project fundraiser that precedes the talk. Echols now lives with his wife, Lorri Davis (they met exchanging letters about the case), in Salem, Massachusetts. The Pitch spoke with him by phone.

The Pitch: Was it tough to recall your time on death row in the book because most people wouldn’t want to go back there mentally?

Echols: I’d say 85 percent of it was written while I was still in prison. I started working on it—I want to say—seven years ago. I only wrote probably 15 percent when I was out, and most of that was just editorial type stuff where you write a piece here and a piece there to sort of bridge two pieces together. It was like I was out here and having to go back and relive it all again. I was sort of writing it as I was living through it, which made it not as difficult.

You didn’t structure the book in chronological order. The chronology of the book is really blurred. Why did you take that approach?

It felt more real to me. It’s odd to say this, but in a way, my life is sort of like that. Most people live their lives almost like a succession of events. One day follows the next day, follows the next day. And you have definite things that mark time. I was 18 years old when I went to prison. I spent 18 years in, so literally half my life was spent in prison.

So, I lived forward for the first 18 years of my life. The second 18 years, I lived either standing still or looking back, going backwards. I wasn’t making new memories, at least none that I wanted to keep. You have things burned in your brain, and there are things that scar you, which you will never forget. But it’s not the same thing as making memories that you cherish later on. Almost that whole period of my life was spent looking backwards at things I did cherish before, things that meant something to me before.

I read an interview with writer Meagan Comfort, whose book Doing Time Together, indicates that many women have found it easier to deal with guys who’ve been in prison because they’ve had time to think their emotions through, and a lot of guys communicate more easily through letters than people on the outside can face to face.

There is an element of truth to that, and I don’t think it’s just prison. I think It used to be that people communicated more through letters than they do now. Society had to sit down and actually write a letter as opposed to sending a text or an e-mail now. It really requires you to think.

I think there’s another aspect to it as well that [Comfort] probably overlooked. Nothing in the world causes us to mature and deepen and learn and grow more than pain. As much as we want to avoid pain—as much as we want to move away from the things that cause us to experience it—that’s still the number one thing that gives us wisdom, that makes us learn and that deepens us as human beings. And one thing you have in prison in spades is pain.

In Life After Death, you advise your readers to look to for information that explains your innocence instead of spelling it out in your own words. Why did you do that?

You start to reach the point where you don’t even have an identity anymore outside the case. That’s sort of what I’ve been living with for 18 years. I’m not the case. I have a life. That’s what I wanted to express in this book. That’s what I wanted to show, that I’m not simply a number. I’m not simply a tragic injustice. If you want to know about those things, there’s already so many sources where you can learn it from. There were three Paradise Lost documentaries. There was Mara Leveritt’s book Devil’s Knot. There was countless newspaper and magazine articles and television shows.

The way I look at it, we have a documentary coming out in December also called West of Memphis. It focuses almost entirely on the legal case: what the evidence was, all those sorts of things. It acts as sort of a flip side of the coin to my book. My book is all about me as a person. Whereas with the movie (which was produced by WM3 advocates Sir Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh as well as Echols and Davis), there’s a little bit about me and mine and Lorri’s relationship together; for the most part, it’s a case-oriented film. I didn’t want to cover things that people could get from so many other sources. I’ve sat through that movie probably 20 times by now. We worked on that movie for a lot of the past year, even after it was being screened in certain places.

The trial was, like, 17 days long. I’m almost 40 years old. That was just 17 days of my life. I didn’t see that those 17 days should be the focus of my entire existence.

In the book, you noted that many of the people in prison should probably have been in a mental institution instead.

Yeah. You know the average IQ for the guy on death row is 85 (out of 200). The law uses the term “mental retardation.” It’s become politically incorrect to use that term in society, but it’s the only one the law still recognizes, other than insanity. To them, it’s a hard-core dividing line. One side of this line is not retarded; the other side of the line is retarded. They say if you are on the side of the line that’s retarded, then it’s illegal to execute you.

But they’re still doing it.

It’s horrific beyond anything most people can comprehend, to see what an execution really means, being carried out and killed. It’s almost like that story Of Mice and Men. It’s almost that bad. It’s just gut-wrenching. The worst case in Arkansas was this guy [Ricky Ray Rector, who was executed in 1992] who shot himself in the head and given himself a lobotomy. He survived it, but he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death.

They were getting ready to ask him what he wanted to have for his last meal, and he says, “pecan pie.” So he eats half of the pie. When they’re getting ready to execute him, he wraps up the other half of it and says he’s going to save the rest of that until after the execution. The guy does not even comprehend that they’re about to kill him. It still happens all the time on a regular basis.

Your wife took up your case and later married you after seeing the first Paradise Lost documentary. Why do you think that she, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder and others have said, “Hey, I identify with this guy?”

For Eddie, Johnny, Henry and several others, that’s exactly what it was. They would think, “If I were in that place at that time, that could have happened to me. They could have done that very same thing to me.” I really think that’s why it resonates so powerfully with everyone. In some way or another, just about everyone, in one way or another, some time or another, feels like an outcast, feels like they don’t belong, feels like they’ve been singled out, feels like they’ve been picked on. It’s sort of a universal experience of being left out or discriminated against. They realize if they could do it one time to me, they could do it next time to them.

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