Far from the maddening solitude of Arkansas’s death row where he spent 18 years of his life for a crime he did not commit, Damien Echols sits across from me at a hotel in Beverly Hills with his wife of 13 years, Laurie Daniels, one week shy of his 38th birthday. Since I last saw him in January 2012, he has gained a little weight and added a few more tattoos—notably on his right arm. Due to his incarceration, Echols needs to wear sunglasses indoors.
As producers of the film, they are here to talk about the latest documentary on his life, West of Memphis. Directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) and co-produced by Peter Jackson (The Hobbit), the latest documentary on the West Memphis Three applies rigorous analysis toward exonerating Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly and finding the real culprit behind the murders of three eight-year-old boys.
On May 5, 1993, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore were brutally murdered and found dead in a creek in Robin Hood Hills, West Memphis, Arkansas. Without due cause or concrete evidence, the police immediately focused on Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly. Soon charges were brought against the three, a trial was set, and the three were found guilty of first degree murder. Since Echols had just turned 18 he was sentenced to death. The other two were sentenced to life in prison.
Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelly’s cruel fate may have gone unnoticed had it not been for the Paradise Lost documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Damning indictments on some of the ugliest aspects of American life, the documentaries—released in 1996, 2000 and 2011—ignited a worldwide cry for justice that continues to this day. For reasons explained at length in the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis, the three are now out of jail, yet they are not free—unlike the real culprit who remains at large. I spoke to Echols about the case, living on death row from 1994-2011, and life after death row.
ESTHER: According to my count, there were 22 executions in Arkansas while you were on death row. What went through your mind each time someone was called up?
ECHOLS: It’s not even going through your mind; it’s more like you have just been punched in the face. You’re stunned. You can’t accept it. When you see them carrying a man out the front door and you know they are carrying him out to kill him, you see all the different states that people go through. I’ve seen guys that walk out like it was nothing. One guy that walked out, the last thing he did as they were taking him out the door [was to] look over to me and he said, “See you later.” And he was chewing gum. Then you see other people who are literally vomiting all over themselves. It doesn’t get easier. Every time it happens, it’s a little harder than the time before. The horror is being driven in a little deeper.
Can you talk about being on death row?
I didn’t see sunlight for almost ten years. It’s part of what destroyed my vision. The food is so bad. I don’t think most people can even comprehend what it’s like. The things that most people out here take for granted like salt, pepper, butter, sugar, cheese. There is none of that in prison. So, you’re trapped in this tiny space where you never get any exercise and the next thing you know people are getting legs chopped off and they’re going blind because they’ve got diabetes. It’s horrendous. Then you add to that no sunlight, no fresh air, and the stress they put you under. Not only are you living with this death sentence or, in my case, three death sentences, looming over your head, but you’ve got people who come in and try to hurt you on a daily basis. You never, ever get to rest. Even when you sleep you only go halfway to sleep.
There are times in prison when you hear a noise in the middle of the night and you are literally up on your feet in the middle of the cell ready to fight before your eyes are even awake and you know what’s going on. For 18 years it gets ingrained in you so deep that it’s more than a reflex— you’re always sleep deprived. At the most, technically, you are allowed four hours of sleep a night from 10:30 to 2:30 because they want to get as much slave labor out of people as possible. So if they get everybody up at 2:30 they can have you in the fields working by 5:00. I didn’t have to go to work because I was on death row, but I still had to follow the schedule that everyone else did. It crushes you. It destroys you in every way.
What gave you strength to carry on through this process?
The two things that held us together and kept us going were number one, our relationship, and number two, our spiritual practice. It was something we could both do together. It keeps you from getting angry and bitter whenever you have something to focus on like that. Not to mention that when you are in prison there is almost no medical care on death row. They are not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of somebody they are probably going to kill. There were times when I would get extremely sick or be in excruciating pain and I had to learn things like reiki and qigong just to keep myself going.
What is the hardest part of transitioning out of prison?
Human interaction. Not only was I in prison for 18 years, I was in solitary confinement for almost a decade. I wasn’t used to interacting with people at all. There are no words to even begin to articulate how overwhelming something like that is. For the first two to three months that I was out, I was in a state of extreme shock and trauma just from coming out into the world again. Most people don’t understand that. They think that you’re going to be happy and excited that you’re out of prison. And you are. But at the same time the anxiety and stress and fear that comes along with it is absolutely crippling in a lot of ways. I hadn’t walked anywhere without chains on my feet in almost 20 years, so it’s almost like you have to learn to walk again. You’re constantly tripping over your own feet or down stairs. You don’t use silverware in prison, because that would be considered a weapon, so you have to learn to use that again. On top of that, you have all this new stuff: computers, cellphones, ATM machines.
You‘re constantly being asked to explain your experiences on death row. Have you found it freeing to get out all the thoughts you had in solitary confinement?
This is not cathartic for me at all. To tell you the truth, it’s absolutely fucking miserable. It’s not fun and it doesn’t help me in any way whatsoever. In fact, it makes it worse in a way. It’s like you’ve got the case right in your face 24 hours a day. I don’t want to think about it all the time, but we really don’t have a choice. If we want a sense of closure, if we ever want exoneration, if we want to see the people who did this to be held responsible, then we’ve got to keep pushing.
Will you continue to fight?
We don’t have a choice. The state of Arkansas is not going to do anything. Anything that’s done on this case from here on out, the burden will rest entirely on us. That’s why we’re doing this. We have to let the state of Arkansas know that we’re not going anywhere until it does the right thing.
What has your relationship been like with Jessie and Jason since you guys have been out of prison?
None, really. I got a text from Jason a couple of minutes ago. I hate talking on the phone. The two things I hate most in the world are flying and talking on the phone. So, I’ll text all day and we text back and forth. Jessie, I want to say he is living his life, but he’s not really. He’s just sort of become this broken creature. People don’t comprehend how we are not the West Memphis Three. It’s almost as if they want you to be joined at the hip all the time, like the Three Stooges. They don’t want you to have an identity outside of that. The fact is that we didn’t even see each other for almost 20 years. And even then, once we were out, Jessie wasn’t even really like our friend, he was like an acquaintance. Jason was my best friend, but he’s not a 16-year-old kid anymore. He is a whole different person now than he was back then.
In West of Memphis, you said,“This case is nothing out of the ordinary. You’re dealing with poor, white trash.” Yet your case is, in many ways, extreme.
It’s become common knowledge that a lot of the reasons why the police focused on us was because we didn’t fit in this really small, hard-core, fundamentalist town. The story actually goes back a couple of years before the murders happened. There used to be these juvenile officers who would come through our neighborhood and pick up teenage boys and say, “Either you give me a blow job or you’re going to jail.” As soon as the murders happen, these guys go straight to the West Memphis Police Department and say, “We think we’ve got your guy right over here. This is the one you need to look at.” So that’s what directed the investigation to us in the first place.
What was most rewarding about being part of West of Memphis?
This was the very first time we ever got to have input to our own story, so it made us able to open up more in a way that wouldn’t work with anyone else. We never would have let anyone else—the other documentary crews or TV crews or anyone else—into our personal lives the way we did with Amy, reading our letters, our phone calls, things like that because we were always really wary of it becoming a sensational freak show of people taking advantage of it. We just weren’t going to allow that to happen. The fact we were able to relax a little more and show more of our personal life was kind of rewarding.
There are four documentaries about you, with the feature film, The Devil’s Knot, coming out next year. You are constantly being defined by how the media presents you.
Exactly. One of the things that we loved about this case was that as producers we actually had a say in it and we were going to tell our own story. You have all these things out there that aren’t [telling our story]. And even some of these [films], like the one you just mentioned, The Devil’s Knot, it’s completely rewriting history. It’s one of things we just want to get as far away from it as we can.
Well, you probably made film history by being the first film producer on death row.
John Esther is an editor, critic, and screenwriter.