Life after death
Damien Echols puts focus on the horrors of death row in new memoir and documentary on the West Memphis Three
By Carl Kozlowski 12/12/2012
In the past 21 months, Damien Echols has tasted fresh snow in the mountains of Utah while visiting one of the most prestigious film-industry events on the planet, the Sundance Film Festival. He's hang-glided over the lush green fields of New Zealand alongside world-class film director Peter Jackson and worked as an extra in Jackson’s new movie “The Hobbit.” He even scratched off the top item on his bucket list — the list of things he dreamed of doing before dying, or “kicking the bucket” — when he saw his beloved Boston Red Sox play baseball at historic Fenway Park.
At 37, Echols has had to consider his bucket list in a much more serious way than most of his contemporaries. And until a miracle occurred in March 2011, it looked like he would never be able to live out his dreams, much less lead a normal life.
Echols was sentenced to Arkansas' Death Row back in 1993, after being convicted as the ringleader of a group of three young men who soon garnered international attention as the “West Memphis Three.” He, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley had been sullen teenagers who felt like abject outsiders being raised in the buckle of the Bible Belt, but their lives were nearly destroyed in a flash when they were convicted of perpetrating the heinous murders of three young boys in their hometown of West Memphis, Ark.
Echols was sentenced to death, and the other two men received life sentences without chance of parole. Yet, thanks to a relentless campaign — including three HBO documentaries and countless fundraisers and media appeals by the likes of actor Johnny Depp and rocker Eddie Vedder that charged the trio were railroaded to prison in a vast miscarriage of justice — the three were freed in March 2011 via an unusual plea deal in which they were forced to plea guilty to the crimes, but were then released on time served.
These days, Echols is touring the country promoting his new memoir, “Life After Death,” as well as a major new documentary opening Christmas Day about the case and its aftermath, called “West of Memphis.”
His recent stop for a press day at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills came as the debate over the use of the death penalty in California rages nore hotly than ever.
“It’s the personal things that matter more for me,” says Echols, sitting in a suite alongside wife Lorri, who met and married him while he was in prison. “I had a list of things I wanted to do if I ever got out, and I'm glad seeing the Red Sox play was one of them, because Lorri and I took a tour of Salem, Mass., while we were up there and fell in love with it and we live there now. I don’t like doing the big production things, but rather walking around, having snacks, talking to people, milling around and wasting time.”
He laughs with that simple statement, and it's almost disconcerting to see and hear joy coming from this man. For nearly two decades, Echols was demonized by Arkansas prosecutors and the media, seen first as a brooding presence who, before donning prison uniforms, liked to wear black clothing and listen to heavy metal bands like Metallica.
In his book, he vividly describes with a mix of powerful drama and gallows humor the profoundly sad conditions that he endured during his time on Death Row and the rough childhood he experienced being raised by his grandmother from age 3. She died while he was still trapped in prison, providing another major emotional setback he had to soldier through.
And yet soldier on he did, anchored by his wife, who quit her job to fight for his freedom full time and now expresses her own happiest moments as being “every morning when I wake up and realize he’s right there beside me, after all that time apart. It makes me really joyful when that happens.”
“This woman saved my life,” says Echols. “There were times when I would be so tired and beat down by everything that I could not keep going. I couldn’t get up. It kills you inside. And at those times, Lorrie would carry me psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and enable me to get back out and walk with people again. She’s literally why I’m sitting here right now.”
Unlike Echols, many death row inmates don’t have the good fortune of being innocent, nor do they have a spouse or ultra-committed friend or family member to plead their case for survival. Since 1978, when the death penalty was reinstated in California, making it one of 33 states with capital punishment, 724 inmates have been placed on death row.
However, due to the incredibly long and complicated appeals process afforded such inmates, only 13 executions have been carried out in those 34 years. The possibility of staging an execution in the state has been put on hold for the past five years, as the courts wrestle with the question of whether California’s means of administering lethal injections constitutes cruel and inhumane punishment.
That backlog is costing the financially strapped state vastly more per inmate than if the same prisoners were serving life sentences without parole, and it appears that California voters are inching ever closer to abolishing the death penalty for good, as Proposition 34 lost by a 6 percent margin in the Nov. 6 election with only 48 percent of the vote.
That prospect gives hope to the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of Pasadena’s All Saints Church. For decades, Bacon has argued for an end to capital punishment.
“I’m definitely against the death penalty because it's not a deterrent and the state doesn’t have the freedom or moral authority to kill a human being,” says Bacon. “Every human being bears the image of God, and everyone is intrinsically human. No one is as bad as the things that they’ve done. Every human being’s life is precious before God, so I’m for the abolition of the death penalty in all cases. We will pass that proposition the next time we bring it before the voters, because the death penalty is a very expensive policy, and that money should be put into preventive measures like public education.”
That sentiment is echoed by former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp of Pasadena, who in 2004 headed the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice.
“I've always been opposed to the death penalty, but I understand the emotional reaction people have to some of these awful cases,” says Van de Kamp.
His commission found that abolishment of capital punishment would save the state more than $1 billion over five years. Van de Kamp also served as LA County District Attorney before being elected state attorney general in 1982.
“The first reaction to some of these cases is, how could anybody do that [crime], and especially if it's one of your loved ones? But a lot of people have been convinced that it’s not making sense economically, and it will come to a vote again in two to four years,” he says.
That vote won’t come about through any help from Echols, however. After losing nearly two decades of his life to the hellish conditions of prison and the unfairness of the system that put him there, he simply can’t handle devoting much more thought to the matter, hoping that his life and telling his own story will be his contribution to the cause.
“Lorri asked me if I would do something to help change the system, and I had to say no,” he says, wistfully. “It took 20 years of my life, and the help of so many others and documentaries, and God knows how many newspaper articles, just to change one case. Can you imagine what it would take to change the system? I think you have to focus on changing the hearts of people, not the system.”