It is a moniker charged with high emotion, outrage and injustice for the three young men who came to be known as “the West Memphis Three.” In 1993, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were arrested for the murders of three 8-year-old boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.
While his two co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison, then-18-year-old Echols was sentenced to death. He spent the next 17 years on death row, most of it in Arkansas’ Varner Supermax Unit, where he suffered incredible mistreatment at the hands of the justice system.
Over time, supporters like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson leapt to Echols’ defense. Following a complex plea deal, Echols was released in August 2011 and tells his story in his memoir, Life After Death. We talked to Echols, who was in New Zealand attending the world premiere of Jackson’s new film, West of Memphis.
You’re been out almost a year. How do you feel?
I'm in New Zealand at the moment, and life is nuts. Tonight we're screening West of Memphis to a sold-out theater that seats 1,800 people. Nerve wracking!
I've been out for about a year now, but I sometimes still suffer bouts of extreme shock. I was in solitary confinement for almost a decade before my release, so being tossed back into the world so abruptly was horrendously traumatic for me. For the first couple of months or so, I was so traumatized I could barely even function. Not to mention how anxious and frightened I was every moment of every day. I'm gradually adapting, adjusting and easing back into life. I still reach a point of saturation and need to be by myself in order to digest it all, but it gets a little easier as time passes.
You’re a very good and very gifted writer for someone who’s said to have been something of a troubled student. What do you think brought this out in you?
I learned to write from my love of reading. When I was a kid, we lived in absolute poverty. My only escape from a hellish existence was through the public library. I'd go there for hours a day and read. I took sanctuary in books and stories. That was magnified once I was sent to prison. I read nonstop, because it took me out of hell. Books helped keep me sane. There's almost no medical care on death row, so I turned to meditation to help me cope with sickness and physical pain. It was books on hermetic esotericism and energy work such as gi gong and reiki that helped me. So not only did books save my sanity, they also helped preserve my physical health.
How does your memoir Life After Death add to the experience of those who watch the Paradise Lost documentaries?
Life after Death will add to the experience of those who have seen Paradise Lost by taking them deeper into the story. It will allow them to see my childhood, my relationships, daily prison life —and many other things which those documentaries did not explore.
You were a very different kid in a backwoods state. Do you think this whole nightmare would have happened to you if you weren’t growing up in Arkansas?
I truly can't say. I don't really look back and second guess things like that anymore, because it's wasted energy. It did happen, so it's more productive and constructive if I dedicate my energy to dealing with it.
You discovered Buddhism and other philosophies in prison. How did these ideas help you survive?
One thing I discovered is that philosophy is about as useful as an extra toe. Philosophy begins with the premise that life is somehow a problem that must be figured out or solved. It is not. You don't solve life—you live it.
What helped me to survive prison wasn't philosophy—it was practice. I've been initiated into many different spiritual traditions through the years, including ordination into the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism. But what helped me the most was energy work. I practice a combination of reiki and hermetic techniques that circulate energy to facilitate both physical and psychological healing. The core of my practice is based on the curriculum of the hermetic order of the Golden Dawn. There is almost no medical care on death row—they aren't going to spend time and money taking care of someone they plan on killing—so it was these techniques that helped me deal with pain and sickness.
In this very honest and straightforward book, what do you think will surprise people who learn about you through Life After Death?
I honestly don't know. I just hope they come away with a better understanding of who I am. If there's anything that surprises people, I think it will be the level of cruelty within the American judicial system.
You have a laundry list of people to thank, from your wife, Lorri, to Margaret Cho—it reminds me of what Hunter Thompson used to call his “Honor Roll.” What do these people mean to you today?
These are the people I wouldn't have survived without, plain and simple. They kept me alive and preserved me when I was in hell.
As of last count, you still have three murder counts on your record. How does that affect your day-to-day life? And what's your best-case scenario to resolve the situation?
I can never vote in an American election or hold a mainstream job. I have to get special permission to enter most countries. No matter what the circumstances surrounding my case, or the level of corruption involved, I am still viewed and treated as a criminal. The only way that will change is if the actual murderer were arrested—but that will never happen, because it would mean those involved would have to admit they made a mistake. That would jeopardize the political careers that were built on this case.
You’ve said that seeing these documentaries is like watching a rerun for you. Can you envision a life past the West Memphis Three? Who do you see yourself being?
Yes, I can see a life beyond the West Memphis Three. When I'm with my friends and loved ones, they simply see me as myself, as the person they know. And I view myself as complete—not as part of a trinity of victimization. I don't want to build an identity for myself based on being a victim. My goal is to pursue projects that stand on their own merit and that impact people in positive, magical ways. I want to do things that make the world a little less mediocre and a little more magical. In a nutshell, that's what I want to dedicate my future to.
What would you say to people about the death penalty debate?
To people on both sides of the death penalty debate, I'd just say it's not as clear cut as either side makes it out to be.
You have a lot of important things to say in Life After Death. What do you hope sticks with the people who read your book?
The thing I hope sticks with people the most after they finish the book is the desire to make their own lives more magical and less mundane. I hope people come away with the desire to live ferociously.