West Of Memphis subject Damien Echols on his murder conviction, release, and closure
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Damien Echols will forever be known as one of the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers wrongfully convicted of killing three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993. After 18 years on death row, Echols and his two co-defendants were released from prison in 2011. A huge reason they were freed was legal and financial help from celebrities—specifically, Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder, and Johnny Depp. All three were called to action by a series of HBO documentaries about the case. Jackson, his partner Fran Walsh, and director Amy Berg just released their own documentary about the case, West Of Memphis, co-produced by Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis.
Where Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s excellent Paradise Lost films got caught up in the moment, West Of Memphis takes a bigger-picture look at the events. Not only does it build a strong case for the innocence of the West Memphis Three, it also makes a compelling case that the real killer is Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the victims. It’s a horrifying story that’s tragic on multiple levels, from the brutal child murders to the way the defendants were railroaded into prison by overzealous prosecutors, a difficult judge, and a pair of witnesses whose damning testimony was later fully recanted. Though the movie follows the story from its beginnings through Echols’ release from prison—via an unusual plea that allowed him to maintain innocence while pleading guilty, effectively protecting Arkansas from a lawsuit—it leaves bigger questions unanswered: Will the real killer ever be punished? And more importantly, how does this type of thing happen, and how can it be prevented in the future? Echols spoke with The A.V. Club about West Of Memphis, the grind of reliving his prison days, and the future of the case.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been on a whirlwind promotional tour, first for your book, Life After Death, and now for the movie.
Damien Echols: I think our last day is December 29.
AVC: And then what?
DE: Hopefully a long, long nap.
AVC: Toward the end of West Of Memphis, you say “For me, it’s over. I’m ready to move on.” But it’s not really over at all, is it?
DE: To be honest, it’s fucking miserable having to talk about this case over and over every single day. It’s fucking horrible. But at the same time, when we were making the movie, I guess we still thought all the way up until I got out that this was going to have a different ending. We thought some miraculous thing was going to happen and we would be exonerated. But it didn’t work out the way any of us thought it was going to. So right now, we still don’t have a sense of closure. We still have this hanging over our heads, in our lives, like some sort of cancer. If we don’t keep doing this now, if we don’t keep asking people, “Please, watch the documentary, please read the book, please research the case,” then we won’t ever have that sense of closure we’re gonna need before I can finally move on. There’s nothing in the world I look more forward to than being able to leave this behind and move into a new area of my life where I’m able to do things that matter to me, things I’m passionate about, things I want to do, that don’t have anything to do with this case at all. It gets to the point sometimes where in a way, it’s like you don’t have a personality. The public sees you and the case as the same thing. You are the case; you’re not even a person in a lot of ways. But if we want that sense of closure, we’ve gotta keep doing this. We have to let the state of Arkansas know that we’re not going to shut up, we’re not going to go away until they do the right thing.
AVC: Is there a clear legal path to your exoneration?
DE: We don’t know, because there’s never been a case like this before. There’s no manual or guidelines, because this is such a bizarre situation and circumstance. Most people before this case had never even heard of an Alford plea. I had never heard of an Alford plea. You wouldn’t think such a thing exists, where you plead guilty but maintain your innocence. What does that even mean?
AVC: But presumably your legal team is still working toward that goal.
DE: We’re doing a lot. The investigation now falls entirely on us. The state of Arkansas is not gonna do one thing. We’re currently caught up in a lawsuit with the FBI, because we found out they have about 200 pages of documents on this case that no one has ever seen before. Maybe there’s something else in there we can follow up on, some leads. The West Memphis police department and the prosecutor’s office are both saying, “Don’t give it to them, they don’t need it, this case is closed. There’s no reason for this stuff to come out.” We’re having to file a lawsuit to get this information, which they’re trying to keep covered up. We’ve also done a few things that didn’t exactly pan out. You know what Luminol testing is? We tracked down the truck that Terry Hobbs had at the time of the murders—it was hard to find, because somebody had filed all the VIN numbers off it. We finally found it and did Luminol testing, and they said there had been blood in the truck, but it was so old and so degraded that they couldn’t type it. And we did Luminol testing in the house he lived in at the time of the murders, and there was blood under the linoleum in the kitchen floor, but it was so old and degraded, they couldn’t type it. A lot of these things are dead ends, but you never know when you’re going to hit that one thing that’s gonna be the jackpot.
AVC: Just to be totally clear, you believe in your heart that Terry Hobbs is the real killer?
DE: To be honest, I don’t know anymore. What I always say is that I shouldn’t have to point the finger. The evidence should be enough. When they put us on trial, they didn’t have any physical evidence connecting us to this case at all. They were using rumors, myths, and ghost stories and fairy tales—Stephen King novels and black T-shirts. They actually have physical evidence that ties this man to the crime scene, and we can’t even get the prosecutor to call a grand jury to look at it.
AVC: West Of Memphis shows that even more than the convicted-because-you-were-outsiders angle, there were two people who flat-out lied at the trial about supposed confessions from you and Jason Baldwin. When did that actually come to light?
DE: I’m not sure about the Michael Carson stuff, but the Vicki Hutcheson stuff was actually years ago. Pretty soon after the trial—soon to me, which is like three, four years—she was already coming forward and admitting she lied. She got called into the police department over a credit-card fraud; she didn’t want to get charged or go to jail, so it was like, “I’ll help you out, you drop the charges against me.” She lied for the police to get out of being charged with credit-card fraud. Pretty much the same thing happened with Michael Carson. He lied and helped the prosecutor so he wouldn’t have to go to prison. But I’m not sure how long ago that even was. I don’t think he even admitted that to anyone until Amy [Berg] went and interviewed him.
AVC: So closure for you will come with—
DE: Us being exonerated, and the person who belongs in prison in prison. And a big thing for me is the officials who did this to us being held responsible for what they’ve done.
AVC: What does that mean, exactly, “being held responsible”? Do people deserve to be fired, or jailed?
DE: If somebody walks up to someone else and punches them in the face, they go to prison. That’s assault. If a prison guard punches a prisoner in the face, the most he’s going to get is a reprimand. In a sane world, the people who did this to us would go to prison for 18 years, because they knew what they were doing. They knew we didn’t do this. They knew it from the very beginning. But the legal system is insane, so the most they’ll probably ever get—if anything at all—is reprimanded.
AVC: You’re talking specifically about lead investigator Gary Gitchell—
DE: Gitchell, [Judge David] Burnett, [prosecuting attorney John] Fogleman. You know the whole thing about Fogleman lying about the knife in the lake. Nothing will ever be done. It really is almost impossible to prove prosecutorial misconduct. It takes a tremendous amount of time and money and energy and evidence to even get somebody to look at something like that on a prosecutor in the U.S.
AVC: In your book, it seemed like you were spending a lot of time looking inward, and maybe not even thinking about the case that much.
DE: Exactly. I wrote probably 85 percent of it while I was in. A lot of what I wrote in prison was to not lose things. When you’re in prison, you don’t develop any new memories that you want to keep. You may have psychological scars inflicted on you, but you’re not gonna have Christmases with your family or anything. It’s all trauma. I was 18 when I went in, and spent 18 years in prison, so literally half my life. It got to the point when I got out, I could remember things like that pizza had been my favorite food when I was a kid, but I couldn’t remember what it tasted like anymore. So a lot of what I started writing was just ways to keep from losing most of it. I would go back over my memories and try to wring every single ounce of nourishment or sustenance out of them that I could possibly get. And writing helped me do that. I would write about the same thing from 20 different angles, just to experience it again, and also to engrave it in my mind so I wouldn’t lose it the way I had started to lose other things.
AVC: Were you actively trying to keep the case out of your mind?
DE: I would be kept up to date when big developments would happen. Lorri tried to handle as much as she possibly could. I was fighting to survive another day in prison a lot of the time. The last thing in the world that I could deal with was the case stuff. So Lorri handled almost all of the case.
AVC: Was it a matter of not wanting to build up hope?
DE: You get jaded over time. Your hopes get built up and then you crash. For example, when Vicki Hutcheson comes up and admits she lied, you think, “Okay, somebody’s gonna step up and do something about this. She’s admitting she lied on the stand!” They don’t. You crash again. DNA testing comes in, and you think, “Surely, how the hell are they going to avoid doing something now?” But they don’t do anything. More years go by, and you crash. That happened to us so many times over the years. It got to the point where I didn’t even get excited anymore. I would just think, “Okay, we’ll see how this plays out.”
AVC: You mentioned in another interview, in regards to Shepard Fairey doing your book cover, that you weren’t aware of much pop culture. So how aware were you of all the people who were helping out, like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson? Had you even seen the Lord Of The Rings movies?
DE: I had no idea who Shepard Fairey was. When I got out, my editors were really excited. They told me, “Shepard Fairey’s gonna do the book cover!” I’m like, “What’s that mean?” She said, “That’s the guy who did the campaign posters for Barack Obama!” I hadn’t seen ’em, so I’m looking at them, and I thought, “I’m not really fond of that, the red, white, and blue thing…” When I did finally see it, I absolutely loved it. It’s an incredibly beautiful cover. When I first got the proof, I showed it to a really close friend in New York and asked what he thought, and he said, “Looks like Danzig wrote a book!” [Laughs.]
AVC: What about some of these other people who helped?
DE: They actually showed the Lord Of The Rings movies in prison. There were charity organizations that would come in around Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they would hook a player up so they could show the movies all around the prison at one time. The tension is so high in there at that time of year. It’s bad enough in prison at any time, but then you add the fact that around the holidays, people are thinking, “Oh God, it’s another Christmas I’m spending in prison,” and it ratchets everything up. So they would play those movies as something to look forward to. I probably saw all three of ’em five times each before I got out of prison. And whenever they’d play those movies, the whole place would get dead quiet, because everybody got sucked into it. When it’s on TV, you’re not in prison anymore. It’s an escape from a horrible reality, at least for a little while.
AVC: How did those relationships develop? Were you able to talk on the phone, or was it mostly letters or visits?
DE: A little of everything. Peter and Fran both were a huge part of our legal team. It didn’t start off with them saying, “Let’s make a movie.” They initially sent us a donation for the defense fund, and they said, “If there’s anything we can do from down here in New Zealand, don’t hesitate to ask.” So Lorri calls, and over the years, they became the core of my legal team. Every day, they’re out working on King Kong and Lovely Bones, and then at night, they’re working on this case. Every day, they’d be like, “Okay, somebody needs to go talk to this witness. We need to get somebody to take the evidence to this forensic expert and see what they think about it.” They were involved in every single aspect of the case.
And then when I got out, we didn’t have anything. I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, I didn’t have a suit of clothes to change into. I had nowhere to go. Peter let us use his apartment in New York. Then we went over to New Zealand and spent three months with them. It really did get to the point where they feel like family. Whenever you hear that accent, it feels like home. And Johnny became like a brother to me. We come from very similar backgrounds: He came from white-trash Kentucky, I came from white-trash Arkansas. Anytime we get together, we’re immediately laughing at the stupidest things, or going to the tattoo parlor immediately. When we’re together, nothing productive is going to happen at all. [Laughs.] Eddie, he used to come and see me for years in prison; he would come to death row and sit there in the visitation room with me. A lot of these people, I don’t even think of as celebrities; I just think of them as people who’ve been there for me, who kept me from dying.
AVC: Have you thought much about what your life would be like if these twin tragedies—the murder and then your imprisonment—hadn’t happened?
DE: To be honest, I haven’t. People ask me that, and it’s one of those things that there’s absolutely no way of knowing. Ever since I was a kid, I always had a desire for something more, a hunger for something more. I would look at the people around me in West Memphis, and the sort of lives they were living, and I would think, “There’s gotta be something better than this, something more meaningful than this, somewhere out there.” Ever since I was a kid, I felt that way. So I would like to think that some way or another, I would’ve found a way out of there anyway. But really, in the end, it’s absolutely impossible to know.
AVC: Do you believe in fate?
DE: I think it’s very nuanced. It’s not an iron chain. I think fate is patterns we create for ourselves. So much in our lives, we create and follow patterns, and it makes a fate for us. But I think you can also change those patterns, change those habits, change the things you do. And then that creates another fate. I think if you want to, and you put forth the effort, you can be 100 percent in control of your fate. But most people don’t. Most people create currents in their lives that carry them toward a destination that they don’t have the ability or the wherewithal to escape from. So it seems like an inalterable state of affairs to them.
AVC: You moved to Salem now, right?
DE: Yeah, we’ve lived there about two months. People say it’s kind of ironic, and ask why we would move there.
AVC: Seems poetic.
DE: We always say, “They learned their lesson a long time ago. They made these mistakes a long time ago, and they don’t want to do it again.” Because of its history, it’s become like a Mecca for anyone who practices any sort of alternative spirituality. You can walk over one street from our house and get acupuncture or reiki. You can’t even throw a rock without hitting tarot-card readers. So finally we’re in a place where I’m in the majority. A friend of mine said it best: “Somewhere like West Memphis, somebody sees you out on the street and they’ll say, ‘There goes a freak.’ If they see you in Salem, they assume you’re a local businessman on his way home from work.”