It’s almost astonishing to meet Damien Wayne Echols in person, let alone in a swank hotel room. Comfortably dressed, and wearing dark sunglasses for his prison-ravaged sight, the southern-accented Echols comes acrossmore like a ringer for mid-period Elvis, or a double take of Echols’ blood brother Johnny Depp, than he does the Manson-esque cult leader who led his two friends to mutilate three young boys and dump them in an Arkansas river. But then, labels were easy to pin on a metal-loving, too smart for the South kid those many years ago, impressions that helped land Echols on death row, and his “accomplices," Jessie Misskelly Jr. and Jason Baldwin, in prison for the rest of their lives.
But if many people thought it was a slam-dunk case of Satanists getting their justly hellish deserts in 1994, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofky’s scathing 1996 documentary Paradise Lost showed the world that three innocent teenagers were wrongly convicted on hopped-up “evidence,” piled on them by politicians and police eager to make their bones on corpses no one would question. Yet the power of Paradise and its 2000 follow-up Revelations brought a groundswell of support from commoners and celebrities alike, all of whom watched the fresh-faced trio age into ashen, cell-bound adults; all while likely murderer, and murder victim father Terry Hobbs walked free in plain sight.
As desperately as officials hoped the spotlight would go away, the campaign led by Echols’ wife Lori insured that the demand for their release only grew louder through protests and concerts, demonstrations that most certainly kept Echols alive. But arguably, it was the politicians knowing a one-two punch was waiting last year with the third Paradise documentary, Purgatory, and the release of the Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh-produced West of Memphis, that finally broke the cell doors open. The deliberate dragging of the case was seemingly over in an instant as the "Memphis Three" emerged into the sunlight, after taking the onerous deal of pleading guilty while claiming innocence, a legal irony that prevents them from suing the state of Arkansas for destroying the best years of the lives.
With Paradise Lost: Revelations debuting on HBO weeks later, all that was left was for West of Memphis' theatrical debut. Those viewers who thought they’d learned everything there was to be outraged about from nearly nine hours of Berlinger and Sinofky’s raw, volatile work will discover a whole new pile of riveting evidence, as told in a far more technically, and emotionally assured manner by investigative journalist and director Amy Berg, who last revealed how the church hid a child molesting priest in 2006’s Oscar-nominated Deliver Us From Evil. Centering on the Echols and a committed team of investigators, lawyers and supporters, West of Memphis makes the ultimate case for an unforgivable miscarriage of justice in a prejudice-ridden country filled with it.
Yet for all that he’s been through, Echols remains assured and pleasant in person. He’s a survivor of the worst that a redneck legal system can throw at him, and has the confidence of someone who’s doing his best to move on. But not before helping to publicize a movie that serves as a far bigger warning call as to how the outcry of media-influenced public opinion can first scream for the death of the obviously guilty, and then fight with all of its cinematic might when persons they first labeled as guilty are nothing of the sort.
Daniel Schweiger: How important do you think movies can be in helping the unjustly accused get out of jail?
Damien Echols: I’m not a very big documentary person, so I can only speak from personal experience. Personal experience is why I’m sitting here right now. When I look back over everything that led to me being out of prison and not dead, you see things that form a chain. And if you take away one single link of that chain, I’d be dead right now. The very first link in that chain was the first Paradise Lost documentary, which came out in 1996. Now the very last link in that chain is Peter and Fran coming on the case and making West of Memphis. So really the reason I’m alive right now are these films.
People think just because you have DNA evidence, new witnesses coming forth, or people admitting that they’ve lied on the stand, then it’s a slam-dunk thing and the case is over. The guys are going to go home. But that’s not true. That’s only 50% of the fight. These people will still kill you and sweep it under the rug to keep from having to admit they made a mistake. If you don’t get that word out to the public, then there isn’t going to be some sort of public awareness of what’s going on. So the other 50% of the battle in this case was the public awareness that came from documentaries, TV shows, books, newspaper articles and magazine articles, all of those things. What sent me to prison in the first place was the media. But in the end, they’re what ended up getting me out of prison.
DS: Do you think it’s also ironic that the other big documentary this season is The Central Park Five, which details a similar case to yours?
DE: I’ve heard about the film, but I haven’t seen it yet. But what they went through is what I’m talking about. People always ask me, or sometimes they’ll even tell me, that if I lived somewhere else like New York City, then this never would have happened to me. “I’m like “Yeah, tell it to the Central Park Five. “ It can happen anywhere on a regular basis. But it’s easier for it to happen in the South - a lot easier. And it probably happens a lot more often there. At least all these other states have exonerated people. To this day, in the entire history of Arkansas, no one on death row has ever been exonerated. The state still maintains, despite all the briefs they will file in response to appeals, that the state of Arkansas has never ever sentenced an innocent person to prison, much less death.
DS: What do you think it will take for Arkansas to pay their due for what they’ve done to you, and to bring the far likelier murder suspect Terry Hobbs to trial for the boys’ murders?
DE: Really, what it’s going to come down to is what it’s going to cost them politically. That’s what this is all about. People have these ideas from what they see on TV, or what have you, that these people, these judges, these prosecutors, these attorney generals, have these positions because they’re somehow moral people. And it’s not true. They have these positions because they’re politicians, just like senators and congressmen, who will say anything they have to say, and do anything they have to do to win that next election. So really what it comes down to in this case is about getting them to do something about exonerating us, sending the right person to prison, and to hold the public officials who did this to us responsible. They would have to see enough public awareness focused on this case, where they felt like they couldn’t get away with covering it up anymore. That’s what it will take.
DS: West of Memphis is a much more technically polished, and emotionally even-keeled movies than the Paradise Lost documentaries. Do you think the fact that the Arkansas officials knew that West of Memphis was coming out factored into your release?
DE: Absolutely. The movie doesn’t even open until Christmas Day, but they started doing free screenings in Arkansas months ago. Anybody who wanted to could come to these free screenings. So that played a huge role in this. That’s what they were scared of. They were scared at how they were going to look once this movie came out and people saw what they were doing. The difference in the movies is exactly what we were going for. The Paradise Lost movies were more like an early version of reality TV. It’s more like set up the camera and catch what goes on in front of it. Our director Amy Berg started out as an investigative journalist for CNN, and that’s what we wanted. When we started doing this movie, it was meant to be an actual arm of our investigative team. It wasn’t just catching things. It was dig and dig and dig. That was the whole point in doing West of Memphis.
DS: In any case where there’s been a horrendous mis-justice done to the falsely accused, we almost get mad at the victims. Did you have that same kind of anger?
DE: I think I did in the very beginning. I would get pissed off about a lot of things. The first two to three years I was in prison you’re pissed off from the second your eyes open up in the morning. Your first thoughts are “They have no right to do this to me. I’m not supposed to be here in the first place!” You are just enraged at what they’ve done all the time, but it starts to eat you alive. You’re already going through this external misery, so the last thing you want to do is start heaping that internal misery on yourself. There’s a quote in Buddhism where the Buddhist said that, “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison in hopes that it will kill the other person.” Well, it won’t. It’s not going to do anything but hurt you. So I realized relatively quickly that I had to let go of that sort of thing. I had to move beyond it, or I was going to make myself even more miserably then I was.
DS: Have you seen Jesse and Jason, or have you gone your own separate ways now?
DE: Pretty much our own separate ways. Some for good, and some for bad. Jessie, he only had an IQ of 68 to begin with. You dump all this crap on top of it, and they’ve pretty much made sure he will never live anything even remotely resembling a normal life. He won’t leave Arkansas from what I heard, because it’s all he knows. He won’t even leave his house now. He has no contact with anyone because he’s scared to death they are going to find some way to put him back into prison. So he’s pretty much become homebound. He never goes anywhere. He never does anything or talks with anyone.
I hate talking on the phone. It’s one of the two things I hate most in the world. So Jason and I don’t really talk on the phone, but we do text back and fourth least once a week or so. He’s in Seattle now, where he’s currently in school. He wants to go to law school whenever he graduates to help people out who may be in the same situation that we were. But he can’t even practice law with a criminal record. This case still reaches so deeply into so many aspects of our lives. I never really knew Jessie that well to begin with. We were acquaintances. Jason was my best friend, but we almost didn’t see each other for 20 years. We didn’t have a real conversation. Yet, a lot of time in the public they link you all together as if we were the Three Stooges or something.
DS: What for you has been the biggest cultural shock since being released?
DE: I don’t think it’s cultural shock as much as it’s just shock. I’d been in solitary confinement for almost 10 years by the time I got out. I wasn’t used to any interaction on any level or any scale. So getting out on that level alone was a tremendous shock. Another thing that has caused me the most difficulty was navigating from point A to B. For almost 20 years I was in a concrete box and never went anywhere. So all of a sudden you find yourself out of jail, and you’ve got a doctors appointments, or you need to go do something somewhere. Trying to figure out how to do that paralyzes you with fear. For the first two to three months I was out, I was in a state of deep, deep shock and trauma. I couldn’t do anything for myself because I’d been ejected from prison into the world all at once. It was brutal. But as time goes by, I get a little bit more used to everyday things. I force myself to do things a lot of time that scare me. I’ll just pick a place and go there, just to experience it and sort of work my way through the fear of it, because that’s the only way you can do it. Make yourself go into what ever it is that scares you, hurts you and makes you weary, and force yourself to burn it out. It makes it lose its hold and power on you. So I try to do that, but there are days when it’s still really hard.
DS: Metal music was a big part of your life before you went to jai. How do you think it’s changed now?
DE: When I first got out, I looked up all the artists that I loved before I went in, just to catch up on what they had done since. So the first albums I bought was everything Ozzie and Danzig had put out since I was locked up. I guess the thing that’s changed so much is how the lines between music are blurred to the point there aren’t really genres like “metal” anymore. You turn over to a bubble gum station, then you turn over to a country station, and they’re playing the exact same song. Or you’ll hear the same songs on a pop station and an alternative station. When I was growing up, music was almost part of your identity. It was who you are. Either you are the metal kid or you are the rap kid, whatever the hell it is, and now it’s like everybody is everything. It’s weird. I’m not sure I like it.
DS: Do you think the South is a rung of hell for Goth kids like yourself, whose appearance and taste in music allowed them to indict you?
DE: When I first got out, we didn’t have anywhere to go so we went to New York. We were standing there and this was the first place I had seen outside of prison in almost 20 years. I’m thinking, “My God the entire world has changed. Nothing is the same as it was when I went in.” But when we went back to the South, I saw that nothing has changed. Down there it is the exact same world it was when I went into prison. I would see people in New York that don’t think twice about me. Didn’t even pay you any attention what so ever. They’re busy going about their lives. When we go down South, I see the exact same people who would have been standing in line wanting to murder me almost 20 years ago.
DS: How’s your health been since you’ve gotten out?
DE: I weigh sixty pounds more now then I did when I got out of prison this time last year. I hadn’t seen sunlight in almost 10 years, which was part of what destroyed my vision. My health was going bad really, really quickly. There were times in there that I really thought I was going to die because I got so sick. There’s no medical care in there, because they’re not going to spend a lot of time and money and energy taking care of someone they plan on killing. It just doesn’t make sense to them. Since I’ve gotten out I can tell I’ve had a huge difference in my health by just having sunlight and fresh air and adequate nutrition and exercise. I feel ten years younger now then I did when I walked off of death row.
DS: What do you think about the movie Devil’s Knot, that’s coming about your case?
DE: As a matter of fact I’m completely and absolutely against it. It’s a horribly written movie. It’s not factual at all They even keep changing the story. At first they said it was based on Mara Leveritt’s’s book, Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. But the movie kept progressing until now they’re saying it’s a “fictionalized account of the mythology of the West Memphis Three.” What the hell does that even mean? That’s just one example. I’ve read a couple versions of the script, and they’re not very well written at all. My wife Lori did 85% of the work in this case, more then the attorneys and investigators put together. There were times when we couldn’t afford legal bills to pay them, and she was still taking out personal loans to pay off our lawyers. Yet she’s not even in the movie. What they’ve done is taken a very fringe character, who had little to nothing to do with the story or me getting out, and turned him into this hero figure in the case. It’s not even remotely accurate.
DS: What do you have to say to people who are unjustly in prison who haven’t had the attention that you three have received... and aren’t likely to?
DE: That they should focus on themselves. You’ll go crazy if you focus on things outside those walls, living for some day in the future where you think you might get out of prison. Or hoping and wishing that people would pay attention to your case. You can’t make people do it. There’s no way. It wasn’t anything we did that brought so much attention to the case. A lot of it was just friends, people who we became friends with over the years. People just think we had these celebrity supporters, and that’s not what it was at all. These were people who became friends and family to us. Eddie Vedder used to come sit with me in the prison. Johnny Depp has become a brother to me over the years. Peter and Fran are like family. As soon as I hear their voices, I automatically get that feeling that everything is okay in the world. So it’s not like we just went out soliciting some sort of celebrity support. It’s like these people became friends and family first, and supporters second.
'West of Memphis' opens in theaters nationwide on Tuesday, December 25th, 2012.
Interview transcription by Peter Hackman.