Free but not yet exonerated: Damien Echols, freed after 17 years on death row, will discuss his life — before and after prison — at WSU

Damien Echols spent 17 years on death row before his release in 2011. - DAVID LE
David Le
Damien Echols spent 17 years on death row before his release in 2011.

For nearly 18 years, Damien Echols didn’t walk on grass or earth, only concrete as an inmate on death row.

Echols was one of three teenagers convicted in the murder of three 8-year-olds in Arkansas in 1993. The teens became known as the West Memphis Three. Their supporters, including high-profile stars like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, claimed they were innocent.

Now 38, Echols has been a free man for one year and five months, but he has yet to be exonerated. He is now touring the country talking about his experiences. Wednesday, Jan. 30, he will visit Washington State University in Pullman.

The story of the WM3 is well documented in HBO’s three “Paradise Lost” documentaries and a new documentary by “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson called “West of Memphis.” Echols has also written about his experience in a new book, “Life After Death,” an account of his time in prison. Except for details like the fact he had to wear a bullet-proof vest to the first day of his trial, the book doesn’t dive into court proceedings. Instead it focuses on Echols’ life before and after.

Echols was raised in a state of poverty. He describes one of his family’s homes as a shack with a tin roof and 14 dogs living under the floor. His stepfather is an abusive religious zealot but Echols doesn’t hold that against him. As a teen he finds a retreat in heavy metal and rock music. He wears black and reads Aleister Crowley. These things lead Bible Belt police officers to profile him as a Satanist. That word sensationalizes the case and draws the attention of HBO filmmakers.

Much of the book is drawn from journal entries Echols made in prison where he notes there are two seasons, crickets and rats. He captures terrible scenes of inmates imprisoned not only by bars but untreated mental illness. There is rampant abuse at the hands of prison guards. When tours come through, he feels like an “exhibit in a museum.” He describes a group of girls from a community college criminal justice class standing silently watching him shower.

He writes, “The energy directed at you is hatred, rage, disgust, stupidity, ignorance, and brutality. It affects you in mind, body, and soul, much like a physical beating. The pressure is relentless and unending. Soon you walk with your shoulders slumped and your head down, like a beast that’s used to being kicked. ... The message that you are inferior and worthless is hammered in at every conceivable turn.”

He turns to Buddhism and other spiritual pursuits. When HBO’s documentaries begin to show a massive miscarriage of justice, he starts receiving letters of support and donations. One of the letters is from a woman named Lorri Davis, who he marries while in prison. Davis will accompany Echols to WSU. The couple now live in New York City.

Neither Echols nor his representatives responded to a request for an interview with Inland 360. In past interviews Echols has said it is horrible for him to have to talk about the case every day. He wants to move on, but in order to be exonerated, he feels he must continue to speak up. ! Bauer can be contacted at (208) 848-2263 or jkbauer@inland360.com.

if you go What: Damien Echols speaks on “Life After Death” When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 30 Where: Washington State University CUB Auditorium, Pullman Cost: Free

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