Damien Echols on the West Memphis Three, exoneration and Life After Death
Is there life after death? After eighteen years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit, most of them spent in the debilitating confines of death row, Damien Echols plans to find out.
In 1993 Echols, then eighteen, and two other Arkansas teenagers were arrested and charged with the murders of three children. The trials of the West Memphis Three, as they became known, offered little evidence but plenty of hysteria over alleged satanic rituals and teens who wore black clothing.
As the supposed "ringleader," Echols was sentenced to death. Stirred by a series of HBO documentaries on the case, a number of musicians and celebrities -- including Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins and Johnny Depp -- launched public campaigns and helped to generate widespread outrage over the convictions. Last year new DNA evidence and the prospect of a new trial compelled state officials to release the trio while denying them full exoneration.
Echols comes to Denver this week to promote his poignant and astonishing memoir of his years in solitary confinement, Life After Death (Blue Rider Press). Movies are also headed to theaters about the case, including the documentary West of Memphis (produced by Lord of the Rings impresario Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) and Devil's Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon. I caught up with Echols for an interview prior to his appearance at the Tattered Cover on Friday October 26, where I'll be hosting a conversation with the author about his work.
Westword: This is a memoir of a special kind. It's about eighteen years in prison, but it's also about the places you went in your mind to escape from prison. What role did your childhood memories play while you were in solitary confinement?
Damien Echols: It's all you have. Most people are constantly making new memories, and they have things they're going to cherish, even if it's just having a conversation with a friend over a meal. On death row, you don't even have that. You don't collect memories you want to save. So what you end up doing is going back and looking at childhood, trying to squeeze every ounce of nourishment out of those times, just to keep you going. You get handholds in memory you don't get walking around in the outside world.
After your first years in a maximum security prison, you were moved into a supermax, with less interaction with other inmates. Was that a huge adjustment for you?
It was better in some ways because it was a bigger prison, so the guards couldn't focus in on just one person and torture them as much; I guess they have to spread the malice out a little more. It gave you a little more privacy. But you see people who are being driven insane from the isolation, too. A judge ordered that a federal inspector be allowed to come in and look at the prison, and he said it was the worst conditions he'd ever seen outside of Guantanamo Bay.
Did you do much writing before your conviction? I gather you read thousands of books while in prison. I'm wondering about the process by which you found your own voice as a writer while incarcerated.
I've been writing since I was twelve years old. In the beginning a lot of it was just horrible, horrible poetry. But it seemed to scratch an itch deep inside you that nothing else gets to; it just felt really, really good to write. When they first sent me to prison, I couldn't do it for a long period of time. They had taken my own writings and twisted them out of context and used them against me [at trial]. It screwed me up psychologically, but finally I got to the point where I wanted to reclaim the things they had stolen from me. I forced myself to start writing again.
The books I read, I wanted to have the same frame of reference people in the world did. The average IQ of guys on death row in Arkansas was like 85, so there was not a lot of stimulating conversation going on in there. So I'd just pick a subject and exhaust it. I read everything by Sigmund Freud. Then I'd turn around and start tackling literature -- Camus, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, whatever. Then I might jump to histories of the Civil War. But my eyes started getting so bad that I had to narrow down and only read things that were saving my life, which were texts on Taoist energy practices, texts on reiki -- there were times when I got really sick, when I was in a lot of pain, and the only thing I had to help me through was meditation and energy techniques.
Talk about what "magick" means to you.
Magic is just sleight of hand -- pulling rabbits out of hats, prestidigitation, illusion. But "magick" with a K denotes a spiritual tradition, a combination of Gnostic Christianity, esoteric Judaism, a lot of the energy practices from the East. You try to strip away the religious connotations and focus on the scientific connotations of it. I was trying to find out what works to help the pain and why it works.
Did you see much change in the way the prison system was operated while you were there?
It goes in waves. The last two years I was there was more brutal than the rest of the time put together. But it was also more subtle. There were times when my wife would come to see me, and my ankles would be bleeding through my socks where they'd put chains on my feet so tight they were cutting the skin. They are constantly finding new ways to hurt you.
They don't want any outside attention coming on the prison. Whenever documentaries and articles and books would come out about the case, they looked at that as me bringing unwanted attention, and they would take that out on me. The day the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that there would be a hearing for all this new evidence, within an hour the guards rushed into my cell and destroyed or took almost everything. They took my books, my journals, my letters because they were pissed off. They said they were sick of seeing me on TV.
You write that you don't want to be seen only as someone who used to be on death row. With all the renewed attention to the case and more books and films coming out, it must be difficult to be accepted on your own terms. Are you getting a lot of rude questions?
So far, every person who's approached me, it's been 100 percent positive. But when I'm with people I like spending time with, the case is the last thing we're talking about. I just moved to Salem a month ago. Before that, we lived in New York and I spent most of my free time in a tattoo studio. That became the first core of friends I made in the outside world, and we'd never talk about the case.
Right now, it's a necessary evil to talk about the case -- but I hate it more than I can ever articulate. You can't ever begin to heal because you've constantly got to rip the wounds back open. We can't move on because we don't have exoneration. And the only way we're going to get exoneration is to get people to read the book, to see the documentary, to do research into the case until the State of Arkansas realizes we're not going anywhere until they do what they should have done eighteen years ago. We want exoneration, and we want the people who did this crime in prison -- and we want the people who did this to us held accountable.
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