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.
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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.