Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

October 4, 2012

Ex-death row inmate finds solace in historic city


CNHI

— By Tom Dalton

CNHI News Service

SALEM, Mass. — Damien Echols walked down a pedestrian mall in downtown Salem on Wednesday, smiling through the mist and drizzle.

“The thing I missed most inside was the rain,” he said. “You don’t realize how much you miss it until you don’t have it for 20 years.”

The sky was gray. Echols was dressed in black - black shirt, black pants, black boots.

“It makes you feel a little safer,” he said of a color he was worn since he was a Goth kid in a long, black coat growing up in a trailer park in West Memphis, Ark. “You’re a little more comfortable, and you don’t have to think of what you’re wearing. I literally have 10 pairs of these pants and 10 of these shirts.”

Straight black hair hangs to his shoulders. His arms and fingers are covered with dark tattoos - Egyptian, Hebrew and Viking symbols. The Chinese words for “winter” and “snow” are scrawled on his forearms, along with a hexagram from the I Ching, tattoos he got with Johnny Depp, one of several celebrities who has become a friend and defender.

“For me, it’s almost like putting on armor of the things I love,” he said of the tattoos.

Just over a year ago, Echols, 37, was released from an Arkansas prison on a plea deal after DNA tests and other evidence pointed to his innocence. He had spent half his life in Arkansas prisons after being convicted with two teenage friends — The West Memphis Three — of the murders of three 8-year-old boys.

Supporters said Echols, who was accused of being “Satanic,” was the victim of a witch hunt fueled by public hysteria. His case drew national attention. He became the poster child for judicial injustice. Even family members of some of the victims came over to his side.

Now he has settled in this New England seaport where public hysteria in the late 17th century led to hearings and executions of people accused of witchcraft.

Before his release last year, Echols had spent 18 years on death row, the last 10 in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with almost no light.

“Here, try these on,” he said, as he handed over his prescription sunglasses. It was like looking through muddy water at the bottom of a pool.

“I didn’t see sunlight for almost 10 years,” he said. “Without these, I can see maybe 4 inches in front of me.”

Echols’ story has been told in an HBO documentary, TV shows, books and magazine articles. His own documentary, “West of Memphis,” is coming out later this year. It is produced by Peter Jackson of “Lord of the Rings” fame.

Right now, Echols is on a book tour for “Life After Death,” the story of his troubled youth and horrific years in prison. He wrote the book in riveting prose that includes excerpts from his prison journal. The book has made The New York Times' best-sellers list.

All this from a young man who never made it past ninth grade, but who read thousands of books in prison, including Jung, Freud, Dickens and Dostoevsky.

“People ask me, ‘Where’d you learn to write?’ I say, ‘From reading Stephen King novels.’”

When he got out of prison, Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, a woman who not only married him but saved him, spent time at the Seattle home of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam fame. Vedder has been one of his most loyal backers.

Then they went to live in Jackson’s apartment in New York City.

A few weeks ago, they moved to Salem and a house at the edge of the downtown.

“I read about (Salem) in prison ...,” he said. He and Davis made three trips before deciding to settle in the city.

There was just something about the place that made them feel at home.

Not long after arriving, Echols was recognized by a member of the Wiccan community, who welcomed him and offered to help in any way she could. He was touched by the gesture.

A friend joked that someone looking like Echols would draw stares in Arkansas. “Here,” the friend said, “they just assume you’re another businessman on his way home.”

Echols and his wife do mundane things, like going to Sears to buy appliances. They arrange for the walls to be stripped and the house painted.

But this is still hard, starting a new life after 18 years on death row, going from a prison cell so small he could take only two strides in one direction, to a book tour with so many stops he can’t count them.

“I basically had to learn to walk again,” he said. “I had to learn to use silverware again, because in prison you eat with your hands. I hadn’t been anywhere in 20 years. I had been in a box.”

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Tom Dalton writes for The Salem, Mass., News.