Damien Echols acknowledges the anniversary of his execution date the way others celebrate a birthday.
It's been more than 20 years since Echols was sentenced to die on May 5, 1994, for murdering three 8-year-old boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Ark., a crime for which he has maintained his innocence.
Thousands rallied to his defense - including his future wife, Lorri Davis, musician Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and actor Johnny Depp - and fought for more than a decade to free him from prison.
Several documentaries about the murders shed light on the trial, where Echols, who was 18, and 2 co-defendants were found guilty of capital murder. Echols received the death penalty and Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, were sentenced to life in prison.
Echols was known as the leader of the West Memphis 3, a name the media dubbed them during the high-profile trial. A new generation of students at Rocky Mountain College, not yet born when Echols was sent to prison, read his memoir, "Life After Death," this fall as part of the Big Read project. The campus is hosting Echols next week with a free public lecture at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Fortin Center.
In a telephone interview with the Billings Gazette from his home in Harlem, N.Y., Echols, now 42, said he is excited about his 1st trip to Montana, "somewhere where I am not jostled around like I am in New York." During his talk, he will give an overview of the trial and his life in and out of prison and then open the discussion to questions.
Echols wants to tour Billings during his visit here with his wife.
"I like to look around, I like to go on foot. I want to see every coffee shop, cupcake shop and bookstore, places people would walk by and not think about."
After spending a decade in solitary confinement, Echols was overwhelmed when he was released in 2011. So much had happened during the 18 years he was on death row - cell phones, laptops, Facebook. He had to adjust to it all.
"I can't even remember the first year I was out. I was in such a deep state of trauma," Echols said.
Echols credits his spiritual practice and his relationship with Davis for helping him through the hellish years in prison and aiding him in his transition to life outside. Davis, a landscape architect, and Echols wrote each other thousands of letters when he was in prison. Their love story is told in the book "Yours for Eternity."
"Even when you are in the worst environment on the face of the earth, you have to find a reason to live, something to focus on. I think if I would have focused on the prison, I would have lost my mind," Echols said.
In a complicated legal process, Echols and his co-defendants withdrew their original not guilty pleas, entered an Alford Plea and were re-sentenced to time served. The court ruling did not exonerate them from their conviction but allowed them to be released from prison. An Alford Plea is not an admission of guilt, but an acceptance that the prosecution has enough evidence that a jury would find them guilty.
Echols has said in interviews that without the plea, he could easily have been killed in prison by a fellow inmate for $50.
Because he wore heavy metal T-shirts, had long black hair, and was "poor white trash," Echols believes he was singled out by West Memphis law enforcement and accused of the murder. He said that profiling is as much based on class as it is on race.
"If all the people on all of the bottom layers got together, it would be an unstoppable force, but they are being distracted by race," Echols said.
West Memphis is the most judgmental place imaginable, he said. He was seen as a freak and accused of worshiping the devil because of his looks.
"Almost anywhere is more accepting. You would find a place in the Middle East that is more accepting."
Echols said he knew who he was by the time he was 7, and can't understand people who are trying to find themselves.
"Read what you want, watch what you want to watch, be friends with who you want to be friends with. One thing I did learn, life is short. I'm 42 years old, and there's no time to waste on crap like what other people think."
Echols is covered in tattoos, most of which he designed himself. He is working as an artist, and views his art as an extension of his spirituality. He opened a show in Santa Monica, Calif., on Oct. 15, and has a show opening in Chicago in December, and London in April. Echols and his creative partners call their collective The Hand.
"A hand is what we use to shape the world," Echols said. "We didn't want to do art just for art's sake. Art isn't what you buy because it matches your couch."
There is DNA evidence available from the case, but Echols said the law enforcement in West Memphis continues to resist putting it in a national database to try and find the real killers. He has steadfastly maintained his innocence and tries to make up for the years he lost in prison.
"I have 20 years to make up for. I want to see things, to touch them, and taste them. You have a choice in this life whether you want to constantly sit and stew or enjoy the moment you're living in. If I sat around and thought about the people who harmed me or have beaten me or tried to kill me, I would be pretty negative."
In a recent podcast, Echols responded to the question of whether he is happy. He paused a minute, then said, "I have my own trauma, but I think I'm as happy as I could possibly be."
Source: Billings Gazette, October 16, 2016
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