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Ever Feel Cheated?

The West Memphis Three's Damien Echols Speaks from Death Row

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DAMIEN ECHOLS Currently serving prison time

In 1996, the directing team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, a deeply disturbing documentary chronicling the brutal murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993 and the highly questionable conviction of three teenage boys for the crimes. Two of the boys, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, received life sentences, while the perceived ringleader, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death. There isn't enough space here to explain the widespread belief that these young men were unjustly imprisoned, but as anyone who has seen Paradise Lost or its 2001 sequel will tell you, it's tragically clear that the boys were convicted (despite a complete absence of physical evidence or motive) because of incompetent and ethically questionable work by the police and lawyers involved, the boys' crippling poverty, and the community's susceptibility to what sociologists describe as "satanic panic" (more detailed information about the case can be found at www.wm3.org).

This gross miscarriage of justice has since become a cause célébre for the music community, which has raised thousands of dollars for the West Memphis Three's defense fund via small local benefits and the work of prominent musicians like Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle, Henry Rollins, and Tom Waits. All this fundraising and public awareness is starting to have an impact: An impressive new legal team with a specialization in post-conviction appeals has been hired, a long-overdue order for previously cost-prohibitive DNA testing has recently been filed, and there's a decent chance these two factors could yield support for what is called an "actual innocence" claim. But if these last efforts fail, Damien Echols' execution date could be set as early as this year. It is under this mixed forecast that I found myself in the extraordinary position of talking with Echols via phone from his death-row cell in Little Rock, Arkansas. [A longer transcript is available at http://thestranger.com/specials/memphis3.html.]


Between the DNA testing and the new legal team, it seems like there's a renewed sense of optimism around the case. Are you feeling better about your prospects of being exonerated?

I wouldn't say "better," because I've always felt pretty good about it, ever since the very beginning. I think the only time I've ever gotten really scared is when the Arkansas Supreme Court shot down this last appeal. But I've always been fairly optimistic. Something this obvious and blatant can't go on forever.


I would think it'd be very easy to be overcome with anger in your scenario...

I was thrust into a horrific situation that I didn't do anything to deserve and it was eating me alive. I would wake up in the morning--just SO angry and I knew I had to do something about it or I was going to become a bitter old man before I was old. And Zen Buddhism was what did it for me, just going through the meditation and taking the vows. That and Lorri [Echols' wife] are the only two things that have preserved my sanity.


In Paradise Lost 2, you expressed a lot of anger toward [the stepfather of one of the victims] and that you felt you were in jail for a crime he committed. Does Zen help with that?

[Pausing] That's hard to say. Some mornings I get up and I'm still convinced he's the guilty party, but there have been things that have come up with this case--through private investigators that have uncovered things--that make you do a double take. There's not a hell of a lot of anger anymore, just because you can't stay angry for over a decade.


What was your first month in prison like?

It was a pretty big shock. The first month I was also really sick because I had been yanked off the anti-depressants I was on for a while, so I was going through physical withdrawals. To be honest, I don't know if I could do it again. When I was younger I was more flexible than I am now. Some of the stuff I went through then would make me collapse now; it was just so horrendous and so difficult.


Have you experienced any violence in prison?

Yes. When I first got here, I did a few interviews with local media groups and the prison decided I was making them look bad. So they came in one day and planted a knife in my cell and took me to what they call "the hole" and while I was back there I was beaten a few times, I was starved. It was pretty grim.


Do you ever think about what your life would be like now if you weren't on death row?

It's crossed my mind a few times, and I don't think it would have been very good. I think in a lot of ways the situation has brought elements into my life which have changed me for the better, which sounds kind of odd considering I'm sitting here on death row, but I think it's true. I've had a chance to learn more and meet more people--not necessarily in here, but [supporters] that have expanded my horizons and introduced me to new things.


What would be your ideal day upon your release?

I think of being able to wear what I want to wear, being able to eat what I want to eat, being able to watch more than two fuzzy channels on the television. Being able to go out and walk, especially at night. That's what I really miss. Just to see the stars and smell the air--the way the air smells is different at night.

editor@thestranger.com

 

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1
Damien, I dont think you did it. I've followed this case for awhile and watched both documentories. It's sickening that you three are behind bars with abouslutly no physical evidence against you. That trial was a modern day witch hunt and I hope it doesn't end up destroying your whole life. Those people call themselves Christians but they are more hateful then tehy ever accused you of being.
Posted by amy on October 4, 2008 at 11:15 AM · Report this
2
Damien, I myself as well have followed the documentories and do NOT beleive any of you guys did this crime. I do beleive the same person you believe did DO this horriable crime. I am a mother of three and watching this I was like hmm I like black and some of metalica's music SO WHAT! But also you guys would never be there if Jessie never said a word. I can't beleive he did that to himself and you guys... I'm sooo sorry and i'm on your side...
Posted by Brandy on December 5, 2008 at 9:43 AM · Report this
3
I saw BOTH films, and I STILL can see why you are on Death Row..Because you are GUILTY! It stands to reason the bleeding heart liberals that people Seattle (thank GOD I got out) would write a line such as "...but as anyone who has seen Paradise Lost or its 2001 sequel will tell you, it's tragically clear that the boys were convicted (despite a complete absence of physical evidence or motive)...". I think ALL 3 of you should have to die EXACTLY as you killed those boys..THAT'S justice!
Posted by Justice has been served on October 26, 2009 at 9:00 PM · Report this
4
I am with Damien all the way! Arkansas is bed of criminal courts and coverups. Isn't this where the Boy's On The Tracks happened? No wonder this poor guy Damien Echols got the rail road for being a black metal fan, so am I and I have not been arrested yet and I am 68 years young!
Posted by Richard Neva on November 17, 2009 at 2:21 PM · Report this
5
Who knows if you did or you didn't,but if you did,then admission of your transgressions would go a long way to bettering your mental health!(its not like you guys are teens anymore,if you did do it-be men and fess up,give the families- your own included,some closure.I too,have seen both the doco's-and still could not decide if you were innocent or not?!?!?I guess that really is not for me to decide anyway...If you arer innocent GOOD LUCK!I would feel very bad,that you have been so severely wronged!!Shannon from Australia
Posted by girl from Australia on December 4, 2009 at 7:26 PM · Report this
bobby f. 6
I have seen both documentries also. I got into metal when I was 12 and I have barley had a speding ticket.Iam 34 never been in jail and have not had ticket since 1995. Yea there innocent why would the stepdad go and have all his teeth pulled and get false teeth when they wanted to do bite mark comparisions on the boys bodys tell me that. why would he turn in a knife with similar dna. Those who convicted these three children you will rot in hell for what you have done as for the stepdad yea you will to god have mercy on all your souls and free the innocent. What kind of fucking justice system does arkansas have anyway. Thanks bobby f.
Posted by bobby f. http://bobbydanfrazier@myspace.com on March 29, 2010 at 4:46 PM · Report this
Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In 7
@3 You talk like a Christian. Full of hate & vindictiveness.
Posted by Some Old Nobodaddy Logged In on April 1, 2010 at 11:46 PM · Report this
8
Damien,

You need to set the story straight. Your family is going to spend their life thinking that the state of Arkasas killed an innocent man. For the first time in your life, you need to tell the truth. You molested your friends (boys and girls) and because you thought you were smarter than everybody else you convinced these other 2 morons to help you kill these three children. I hope you continue to get raped every day of your life. you are trash, a loser, garbage, everything that everyone hates. I hope your death is as pleasant as the ones you gave your victims. Die!!!
Posted by pwsis999@yahoo.com on July 4, 2010 at 4:48 AM · Report this
9
Do you people hear yourselves?? how can you watch that film and not see they are innocent. It isn't about liberals or Christians...it's about plain old common sense. Wake up!! Review the evidence for yourself. There is no DNA connecting the WM3 to the crime, yet there is DNA from other sources. Remember--this crime took place before CSI and Bones and all those forensics shows. Really, it was before DNA testing...so, you really think three teenagers were able to brutally murder these boys in a creek bed and not leave behind evidence? Can you explain the presence of other DNA there? No! and if you had any sense, you would get your head out of your ass and do the research before making stupid, hate-mongering comments. WIth that kind of talk, maybe you're the killer!
Posted by mademoisellebelle33 on August 10, 2010 at 12:08 AM · Report this

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