Only the Halfway Mark: Damien Echols on West of Memphis

The now-free member of the West Memphis Three talks about his long journey and the new documentary about his case.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

At the Sundance Film Festival this year, we reported on Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s efforts to spearhead an investigation of the West Memphis Three case that ended up freeing Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin. The film West of Memphis also reveals that the three had to plead guilty to make a deal for release, even though evidence would conclude they did not commit the Robin Hood Hills murders. With the completion of the film, Echols has joined filmmaker Amy Berg on the festival circuit. I missed them at Sundance but caught up with them at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Echols’ wife, Lorri Davis, whom he met through her letters to him in prison, sat with him for support. When Mark Byers, father of the slain Christopher Byers, came over to say Echols was like a brother after what they’ve all been through, that was a profound moment to witness.

CraveOnline: Is even the justice you received bittersweet? Even though you’re free, it seems corrupt because you had to plead guilty to make the deal.

Damien Echols: Yeah, and it makes it so that this isn’t closure for us. This is only the halfway mark because like you said, there is still that. For us it won’t be over until we’re exonerated and the person that belongs in prison is in prison, and the corruption has been exposed for exactly what it is. It’s not fun for me having to talk about this case and relive it and think about it all the time. Sometimes it’s hellish, having to think about this stuff again. But we can’t stop until it’s completely and absolutely finished. And this plea makes it so that for us it’s not closed.

Is it at least comforting that someone can conduct a proper investigation, as long as Peter Jackson hires the right people? It still takes way too long but at least someone is capable of doing it.

That’s exactly what will happen. Our people will end up being the ones that solve this, then the state will swoop in and try to steal the credit for it.

It’s striking to see the clips of you at 16 and now as this articulate adult. Do you wish you could tell your 16-year-old self not to act out and make it easier for them to portray you negatively?

Honestly, it sounds kind of odd, but no. Because it was some of the way I was back then, I’d get tons and tons and tons of mail while I was in prison saying “I can identify with you because of this and because of that.” It was some of those very things that caused that reaction in people and made them want to get involved in the case. In some ways, it did definitely hurt me but at the same time it didn’t matter how I behaved. They were still going to sentence me to death. And at the same time, it actually did some good at the end.

Is it also hard to imagine that if it weren’t for this tragedy, you wouldn’t have met your wife?

Exactly. People that ask me would I go through this again if it meant being with Lorri, and the answer is yeah. If it wasn’t for this case and so much pain did come out of it, but at the same time I met Lorri because of it. We’ve made some really great friends, people that have rallied around us and supported us and done anything they could to help us through this time, so there has still been a ton of blessings come out of this for us, in many ways and in many areas of our lives.

Were you allowed to watch the Paradise Lost movies over the years?

I tried one time. One of my attorneys got a court order that they could bring them in and show them to me. I made it through a few minutes of the first one, none of the second one. I went to the premiere of the third one but when I tried to watch the first two while I was in prison, the only thing I can compare it to was like when Vietnam vets talk about flashbacks. I understand why it had such a profound impact on people but as soon as I started watching it, for me it literally felt like I was there again and reliving it again and feeling everything. It was too much. I couldn’t do it.

I can understand that. But it wasn’t forbidden for you to see them.

No, they had to get a court order to do it but even then they started and I couldn’t.

Are you able to watch this film?

I’ve watched it several times, yeah. That was part of working on it up until it came out was having to go watch the rough cuts of it and just see how it’s evolving as it evolves. That’s how I knew that this film is good, because there’s so much of this case that I’m sick to death of that I don’t want to have to think about again. The very first time we sat down to watch the very first cut of this movie, I thought, “Oh God, I don’t want to see this again. I don’t want to have to go through this again.” But it held my attention all the way from beginning to end. It wasn’t repetitive. It wasn’t just the same crap that everybody’s used over and over. It was new stuff that held my attention from beginning to end, and that’s when I knew it was good.

You have such a healthy perspective on what you’ve been through and how to move forward, was there any specific spiritual reading that helped guide you?

A lot of it was energy work. Most people are more familiar with eastern energy like Reiki Qigong and things like that. I was doing the exact same thing only it was more westernized versions of it. It’s sort of slang, they call it ceremonial magic which is basically the same thing. In prison, especially where I was, there was almost no medical care, no dental care. They’re not going to spend a lot of money trying to keep you alive just so they can kill you at the end. So I was having a lot of physical problems, a lot of pain and that’s the only thing that would allow me to cope with that and keep from losing my mind or keep from literally physically dying. So a lot of it was energy work. A lot of it was also, as opposed to a specific book, it would be more like the Tarot. I’m actually getting ready now, that was one of the thing when I was in prison I was getting really passionate about. Now one of the things I’m getting ready to do while I’m out is I’m going to do Tarot readings at MOMA as performance art. So it’s like the very same things that people tried to murder me for are now being embraced and celebrated by the outside world.

Do you ever feel conflicted about making money with things that were used against you?

I don’t really have a conflict with it. I could probably have a conflict with a lot of things if I sat down and really thought about them, but I’d rather just focus on enjoying what it is I’m doing now than worrying about stuff like that. If I do start looking at all that stuff it’ll probably make me very angry and bitter and everything else. There’s just no need for it.

What is your life like now?

Different ways, different days. A lot of it since I’ve been out has been a lot like this. I’ve only been out a little over five months now [as of January 2012]. In that time we’ve been to L.A. three times. We’ve been to Salt Lake City, we’ve been to Nashville, we’ve been to Boston, we’ve been to Seattle, we’ve been to Salem, we’ve been to New Zealand. I’m used to basically being locked in a space the size of your bathroom for almost 20 years. So it went from that one day to this one day and a lot of it’s still trying to learn how to cope with it, trying to deal with it. It gets a little easier and a little better each day. Sometimes it is hard. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.