Exclusive Interview: Damien Echols of The West Memphis Three on His Life After Death
Most metal fans can relate to part of Damien Echols’ story. Growing up in West Memphis, Arkansas, Echols was marginalized for listening to heavy metal, dressing unalike his peers, and reading books that were just a bit different. What happened to Echols largely because of nonconformity could accurately be called “Hell.”
In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a ditch in West Memphis. Echols and his friend Jason Baldwin and their acquaintance Jesse Misskelley – collectively known as The West Memphis Three – were implicated in the slayings. After a trial based largely on the theory of a “Satanic murder” and the testimony of a so-called “occult expert” (with a master’s and doctorate from a mail order school), the trio was convicted, and Echols was sentenced to death. Echols was a teenager when he was sentenced; today, he is almost forty.
In the mid-90s a movement began to, at the very least, grant Echols and his co-defendants a retrial. There was strong evidence that Misskelley was coerced into a confession. The evidence was shaky and the prosecution’s case flimsy at best. Free The West Memphis Three tee-shirts became common. The documentary Paradise Lost and books like Devil’s Knot poked holes in the case and pointed to the likely fact that Echols and his friends were railroaded in an updated version of a witch hunt.
Almost two decades after the murders, the state of Arkansas agreed to release the three men, in part due to DNA testing that found no match with Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley at the crime scene. It was a proverbial Faustian bargain; Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley left prison but still pleaded guilty to murder and agreed never to sue the state. They maintain their innocence despite the plea.
Damien Echols is free, but the case still defines his life. This month, a Peter Jackson-produced documentary, West Of Memphis, will be released, bringing even greater attention to his life. Meanwhile, he’s on the road with his wife Lorri (who he married in prison when she was working on his behalf), promoting his riveting autobiography Life After Death. The book is as much about how he changed on death row as the horrors he encountered there. He hopes for the day he can forget about the trial and open a meditation practice. Echols talked to us about his struggles and salvation – and about metal.
You’re in Chicago today. I imagine you woke up and had some coffee and looked out the window. What are experiences like that after you were on death row for so long? What are the small things that people take for granted like?
The last ten years, I was in solitary confinement with no human interaction. As soon as we got out, I flew to New York City, to Manhattan. Even if I hadn’t been in a prison – even if I had just been coming from Arkansas – it would have been a huge jolt to the system. I hadn’t been around people in almost a decade. It was extremely overwhelming.
For the first few months I was out, I was in a state of deep shock and trauma. I couldn’t enjoy much of anything. But as the year has passed, I’ve sort of come out of it, and every day I feel a little bit more like myself. I didn’t have any human contact for so long. Now that I get out and get to go to these cities, it’s like it fills a hole inside of me. When you are in prison you are starving to death for any sort of human interaction, and when you get out, it’s just incredible, it makes you not want to waste a second.
When I first got out, I would go and walk and walk for hours, just looking in shop windows and feeling the wind and the rain. I would be exhausted to the core and want to go lay down, but as soon as I’d get back in, I would want to go right back out. I’d missed so much for so long and I couldn’t get enough.
Your situation reminds me of Robert Heinelen’s novel Stranger In a Strange Land. It’s almost like you dropped to Earth from Mars. You essentially grew up in confinement.
That’s what it was like. It was literally a whole new world I walked out into. I hadn’t seen a computer since 1986. The one I saw back then was a glorified typewriter for rich people. I had never used the Internet, never seen a cell phone. So when I got out of prison, I had to learn all of these new things while learning all the old things over again. I hadn’t walked anywhere without chains in about twenty years. So I had to learn to walk again. I was tripping on my feet, tripping down stairs, tripping over curbs. I was tripping everywhere I went.
People expect that when you get out of prison that you are going to be excited and happy. And you are. At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress that’s crippling.
I remember seeing your first news conference when you were released from prison, and you seemed very composed. I’m wondering what you were actually feeling.
At that point I hadn’t slept or eaten in a solid week. I was so tired I was bordering on collapse. I was just hoping they wouldn’t drag this out so I could rest. I didn’t know we were going to get out until the night we did. The whole week before we knew it might happen, but I was so scared it wouldn’t happen at the last minute and I would die in prison. I was so tired the last week in prison, I was on autopilot.
Long before Peter Jackson or Natalie Maines were involved, you had a huge amount of support from fans of underground music. Were you aware of it?
You are aware of it in one way. I’d call home and talk to Lorri and she’d tell me about it, or I’d get letters. But it was like it was happening a million miles away. You are just fighting to get through the day. You are living in hell. The support is there, but you might as well be living on another planet. It does fuel you. But I didn’t have any faith in the system. It’s corrupt at the core. What I had faith in were people. They were doing anything they could do to help. The reason I thought I wouldn’t be executed had to do with people, not the system.
Your story and the story of the West Memphis Three spoke to a lot of people who listen to metal. Your story seems to be an extreme example of the costs of not fitting in or playing by the rules.
That’s exactly what it is. People have told me that’s why they rallied to the cause; it could have easily been them.
I remember seeing Free The West Memphis Three shirts at concerts back in the 90s, but how did that lead to a global awareness of your case?
It happened gradually. You had more and more websites and documentaries and newspaper articles. Books were coming out. It just gradually grew. It was like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger. After a while the movement took on a life of its own.
You mentioned getting letters in prison… what did some of them say?
I’d get letters from people who had been through really bad or hard things, or were experiencing some sort of pain. It made them feel like they could relate. I heard from those people every day.
When you were a kid in West Memphis and listening to Metallica and dressing differently, did you ever think it could lead to something like this?
No. You are raised in a society with TV shows and these myths about “innocent until proven guilty.” So you don’t think it’s possible for someone to convict of you of something you haven’t done. Never in a million years would it cross your mind that they would sentence you to death for this.
What made the three of you such easy scapegoats?
We came from this really small hardcore fundamentalist town and did not fit in. Whenever you are excluded, whenever you are discriminated against like this, people stop seeing you as a human being. They start seeing you as less than they are. That makes it easy for them to hurt you because they don’t even see you as a person.
Two years before the murders, there were these juvenile cops. They weren’t even real cops. They were supposed to handle juveniles. But they were just picking up kids and saying “give me a blowjob or you’re going to jail.” One of them was forced to resign after he was accused of molesting boys, and the other was forced to resign from a police department in Florida for stealing money. These guys tormented and harassed me and made my life hell for two years before the murders. So it wasn’t like the discrimination just happened. It didn’t start at the time of the murders. It went on for a long time before that.
The book Almost Home was cobbled together in prison. How did the new book come together?
I tried to incorporate as much of Almost Home as I could. I had people constantly asking about that book and where they could get it. And the answer was, “You can’t. It’s gone forever.” I’d say the whole book [Life After Death] took about eight years to write. Some of it is from the old book. Some of it is narrative. There are journal entries and essays I wrote in prison. My editor’s job was basically to say: “You need to find twenty pages to bridge these sections together.”
We’ve been on the road two straight months now, going from city to city [for the book tour]. It’s like being drunk on exhaustion. Talking about the case is exhausting. Imagine talking about the worst thing that happened to you, every day. It’s a necessary evil. Because if we don’t keep talking about this, if we don’t keep the pubic interested, then we’ll never be exonerated. The person who belongs in prison won’t be in prison. It will just be swept under the rug. We’re doing it now in the hopes of a sense of closure.
What does closure look like for you?
Moving on with life. We get exonerated; the person who belongs in prison is in prison and the people who did this to us are held responsible. Only then will we be able to move on. In a way it’s like we’ve become this case. It’s like we don’t have an identity outside of it.
At the same time, one of the things I took from your book is a sense of who you are outside of the case. The book isn’t just about survival, but transformation.
People who are only interested in the case are dismayed that I don’t talk much about the trial. But I’m almost forty, and that trial was only seventeen days of forty years of life! It’s not the be-all, end-all of my existence. I wanted people to get to know me as an individual, rather than just a sound bite. I don’t want to be The West Memphis Three all of my life. I want to be a person.
I’m getting ready to have my first art show since I’ve been out, on January 5. I’m taking all the stuff I made in prison and I’m going to display it and sell it to have closure on that part of my life. I don’t want to see these things any more, but I don’t want to destroy them. But this will give me closure on one thing.
Even when you talk about death row in the book, you seem not to have lost hope. You picked up Zen Buddhism and meditation.
When I first got [to prison], the first two to three years, I just kept getting angrier and angrier. You just wake up pissed off in the morning thinking, “They have no right to do this to me.” You are already in this external hell, and then you take on this internal hell. My life was becoming horrible because of anger. That’s what turned me on to meditation.
I also had to learn Qigong, energy work. They don’t take care of someone they plan on killing. There were times when I was in a lot of pain and had to learn energy work to survive. I’d been hit in the face so many times that I had nerve damage to my teeth. Your options are let them pull your teeth out or live in pain. I was in so much pain I wanted to lay down to cry. I had to learn these techniques just to cope.
How did you write in solitary confinement?
All you could have is the ink cartridge of an ink pen. I wrote it all out on longhand. I was just there with the cartridge and paper.
How did you preserve this stuff?
I sent it to Lorri and she would keep it.
Not only have you gone from death row to freedom, but also from death row to a level of celebrity. What is that like?
I really don’t know. It doesn’t feel like that to me. It may look that way because of what people see on television, but it’s not. For the past year I’ve been doing everything I can do get some sort of foundation and build a life. When I left Arkansas, I didn’t have a penny in my pocket or clothes to change into. I didn’t have a place to sleep. If it wasn’t for people looking out for me, I don’t know what I would have done to survive. I don’t think that’s the life of a celebrity. I think of someone established in the world. In my situation, the last thing you think of is celebrity status.
How did you decide to relocate to New York?
We didn’t have anywhere to go, and a friend loaned us an apartment until we got on our feet. So, we came to New York and lived there for a year. We moved to Massachusetts a few months ago. We moved to Salem, just because of cost considerations. Rent for a New York apartment you’d need to turn sideways to walk through will get a house elsewhere. We also wanted a private place.
Do you go back to West Memphis?
Would you ever be comfortable going back?
I don’t see any reason to. There’s literally nothing there for me but bad memories.
Do you listen to heavy music any more?
I don’t like anything out there now that people call “metal.” I like a lot of the stuff I grew up with, like Ozzy. I’ve loved Ozzy since I was a kid. He’s one of my favorite singers. I can listen to him over and over. I listen to Danzig a lot; it was the first album I got when I was out of prison. I found all the stuff he did when I was in prison and got that. Then again, I also just go back and listen to U2 or The Cure or Bauhaus. I don’t limit myself. I’ll give anything a try. I can find something from almost any genre I like.
You got out of prison just in time to find out Black Sabbath was releasing an album with (most) of the original lineup.
I’m very much looking forward to that. But I have to admit that, even if it’s sacrilege, I think solo Ozzy is better than Black Sabbath [laughs].
Do people ask you about music, about who you really are? Or is it more like rubbernecking?
It’s all over the spectrum. You comes across rubberneckers, but if people come up and want to talk to you, they often genuinely care and are glad you are out . [Press] is a necessary evil. We’ve done so much media I can’t even keep track of it.
With the book title, I immediately thought of the Iron Maiden album Live After Death. Coincidence?
[laughs] I forgot about that album until you just said that. Someone else asked me if I had a rap album in mind, something by some rap guy named Biggie Smalls? [laughs] They asked if it had something to do with that. That’s just the name we decided on. I almost called it SK931. That was my number on death row. It means I was the 931st person sentenced to death in Arkansas. At the very last minute, we thought it was easier and simpler to say “life after death” because that’s what I’m doing now, living life after being sentenced to death.
When things start winding down, what are your plans?
What I’d like to do, when I don’t have to think about the case, is have a small meditation center where I can apply what I learned in prison, so people can use it in their own lives.
If you had to say anything to a kid who feels put upon because of how they dress or their musical taste, what would you say?
“Don’t give up.” If you start giving up the things you love, that make you who you are, then life isn’t worth living. If you give up who you are, it’s like imposing a death sentence on yourself. Just hold on to the books, music and things that make your life magical. Hang on to them no matter what people do.