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.