Imagine a concrete box called home, orange mystery slop meals, shuffling in chains until you forget how to walk without them, consistently being beaten sometimes to the point of urinating blood and denied sunlight until nearly blind.
Let’s face it: Most of us couldn’t make it one day in solitary confinement on death row in a supermax prison, but Damien Echols spent 18 years there – all for a crime he did not commit.
“From the moment you wake up you’re furious, thinking, ‘These people have no right to do this to me. I’m not supposed to be here,’” said Echols,describing his first few years incarcerated.
Echols, his wife Lorri Davis and attorney Stephen Braga ‘78 closed out The Regina A. Quick Center’s Open Visions forum for the fall semester with a panel discussing the corruption of the criminal justice system, the brutality of prison conditions and what life Echols has forged since being set free.
In 1993, the town of West Memphis, Tenn., was shaken by the horrific murders of three 8-year-old boys, Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers. The children were found naked, submerged in water, with what seemed like evidence of genital mutilation.
A modern day witch-hunt ensued to quench the town’s thirst for vengeance. The police force honed in on Echols, just 18 at the time, and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, well-known mischiefs for their proclivity toward heavy metal and tendency to dress in black. The crime was believed to be so unfathomable that it could be attributed to nothing less than satanic ritual.
“The theory went first, rather than the facts,” said Braga. While no physical evidence was found tying Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley – known henceforth as the West Memphis Three – to the crime scene, circumstantial evidence, such as a false confession from a mentally handicapped Misskelley and Echols’ well-documented history of institutionalization with Arkansas’ juvenile correctional facilities, kept them from freedom.
Despite the lack of evidence, the judge sentenced Baldwin and Misskelley to life in prison, and Echols to death row.
There was just one problem: They were innocent.
The guards at the prison welcomed Echols by brutally beating him to the point where he was peeing blood and had suffered nerve damage in his teeth. According to Echols, beatings were a regular part of prison life.
Inmates were fed, up to three times a week, “box meal,” which consisted of a mysterious substance mixed with water and beaten until it took on an orange appearance. “You can’t eat that stuff. I got food poisoning several times,” said Echols.
Speaking about the passage of time and spending 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, Echols said: “People out here usually think that time passes very slowly in prison. In actuality it doesn’t really pass at all.” Minutes, he said, were “stripped of all meaning,” and the inmates would begin to mentally decay from the moment of incarceration. To deal with the stagnation, Echols escaped into his mind, practicing meditation for up to seven hours a day.
Echols also turned to literature and writing to cope with his intolerable situation. He composed much of his New York Times best-selling novel, “Life After Death,” while in prison. Echols wrote, “I leave my body here to cope with the nightmare while my mind walks other hallways.”
When asked in an exclusive interview with The Mirror what he believes the power of writing to be, Echols said: “A lot of it just feels good. You know, I think that’s the reason people create all art in the end is because it scratches an itch somewhere inside of them.”
The case was the subject of the award-winning HBO documentary series, “Paradise Lost,” which helped garner more media attention to the case. After viewing the documentary, Lorri Davis was so moved by Echols’ plight that she wrote him a letter. Five thousand letters later, the two married in 1999 in prison, with a Buddhist ceremony. For the next ten years, Lorri dedicated her life to fighting the legal battle for Echols’ freedom.
Celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Veder, Marilyn Manson and Henry Rollins began promoting the case and calling for the release of the West Memphis Three.
A re-evaluation of forensic evidence revealed that what the prosecution had initially described as knife-inflicted satanic genital mutilation was in fact more likely bites and scratches caused post-mortem by snapping turtles native to the area of the murders. Their supposed motive no longer existed.
After almost two decades of appeals, national publicity for the case snowballed to the point where the state of Arkansas could no longer ignore the public outcry for justice.
Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released in 2011 after submitting an Alfred plea, essentially pleading guilty to the murders so the state could save face while upholding the factual innocence of the defendants in exchange for a sentence of time served, according to Braga. They walked away from the courthouse on Aug. 19 as free men.
By the time of his release, Echols’ health was in serious decline – his body wrecked from sleeping on a concrete slab and his eyesight deteriorated from having not seen sunlight in nearly two decades.
The biggest shock of adjusting to the trauma of sudden freedom was overcoming the constant fear he came to know as a way of life. “When you’re in prison, you live in fear 24 hours a day, seven days a week that someone’s either going to hurt you or kill you or do you harm in some sort of way,” Echols said. “And then you get out here and that becomes ingrained on you on a level that’s even deeper than reflex.”
“I could not even function in the simplest of situations,” said Echols. After walking in chains for so long, he had to relearn how to walk without them.
Echols said the first step in repairing the broken state of our justice system is recognizing the need to remove politics from it. “We tend to have this idea in our society that judges and prosecutors and attorney generals … have these positions because they are somehow moral and looking out for society, when in reality they are politicians whose number one priority is winning the next election,” said Echols.
Echols also said he is firmly against the death penalty, citing the high number of death row inmates who are mentally incompetent.
“They are executing people who don’t even have the mental capacity to realize that they’re being executed,” Echols said.
In 2012 alone the U.S. executed 43 people. As of April 1, there are 3,108 people on death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in D.C. However, it is impossible to say how many, like Echols, may be innocent.
When asked by The Mirror what justice would mean for him at this point, Echols said, “I don’t even know anymore.” While he would like to see those who committed the crime put in prison and the officials who mishandled his case held responsible, “at the same time I can’t dwell on that. I have to do everything I can to keep moving forward.”
The case was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary, “West of Memphis,” directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson.
The panel was featured as the Annual Jacoby-Lunin Humanitarian Lectureship. More than 500 tickets were sold for the event.
After the discussion ended, audience members lingered, crowded the stage to shake hands with Echols, thanked him for speaking and posed for pictures.
“It’s just really inspiring,” said Shealyn Testa ’14, “just to see how much justice he wants to bring about in the world.”
Senior Nicola McLucas, an international student from Scotland, reflected on the experience. “We don’t have death row so it’s crazy,” McLucas said. “I think that the system is really, really corrupt and the living situation he was in and everything with the guards and beating on him, I thought it was unbelievable. Really eye-opening.”
Freshman Caitlin Bennett was in awe of “how in 18 years he didn’t give up hope, whereas some people might be like, ‘There’s nothing I can do.’”
These days, kids who are persecuted for being different, like Echols was, are often told, “It gets better.”
Echols said he would tell those kids “not to give up the things they love. That if you give up those things, then you might as well be dead anyway. That if you give up the things you love just to lessen society’s pressure on you, then you aren’t really alive.”
Published originally in The Fairfield Mirror