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West Memphis Three: Life After Death Row

Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three is out of prison.  Talking with us.  It’s a wild story.

The "West Memphis Three", from left, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin at the New York Film Festival 2011 in New York. (Photo: AP)

The “West Memphis Three”, from left, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin at the New York Film Festival 2011 in New York. (Photo: AP)

Damien Echols was 18 when he and two other teens were convicted of the gruesome murder of three boys and sent away to prison.  In Echols’ case, to death row.

He would spend eighteen awful years there – a moody, poetic, ultimately Zen prisoner – while outside he became known as part of the West Memphis Three, in a case that became infamous for justice gone awry.  Johnny Depp took up his fate.  And Peter Jackson. And Eddie Vedder.

Now he’s out, and telling a dark, amazing story.

This hour, On Point:  the West Memphis Three’s Damien Echols, on life after death.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

George Jared, crime reporter for the Jonesboro Sun.

Damien Echols, in 1994, he was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection for the murders of three eight-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Last summer, he and two cohorts known as the West Memphis Three were released from prison.

From Tom’s Reading List

Arkansas Times “Two parents of children murdered in West Memphis in 1993 still have not been granted access to evidence relating to those murders, despite a lawsuit against local officials and state claims that the case is closed.”

Salon “One of the ironies of Echols’ story is that the very interests and attitudes that made him a pariah in West Memphis aroused the sympathies of not only Davis but the musicians, actors, filmmakers and other artists who have come to his defense.”

New York Times “‘You can have all the evidence in the world, and that’s still only 50 percent of the fight,’ said Mr. Echols, who speaks in a soft but resolute voice. ‘The other 50 percent is media. You have to get the media to pay attention. If not, they’ll sweep it under the rug and keep going.’”

 Video

West of Memphis - Trailer

Playlist

“Rise Above”  – Chuck-D & Henry Rollins

“Army Reserve”  – Pearl Jam

“The Blackness and the Forest”  – Michale Graves & Damien Echols

Book Excerpt

PREFACE

Saint Raymond Nonnatus, never was it known that anyone who implored your help or sought your intercession was left unaided. To you I come, before you I stand. Despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me.”

Saint Raymond Nonnatus is one of my patron saints. I would be willing to bet that most people have no idea that he is the patron saint of those who have been falsely accused. I like to think that means I have a special place in his heart, because you can’t get much more falsely accused than I have been. So me and old Raymond have struck a bargain. If he helps me out of this situation, then I will travel to all the world’s biggest cathedrals and leave roses and chocolate at the feet of every one of his statues that I can find. You didn’t know saints liked chocolate? Well then, that’s one thing you’ve already learned, and we’re just getting started!

I have three patron saints in all. You may be wondering who the other two are, and how a foul-mouthed sinner such as myself was blessed with not one but three saints to watch over him. My second patron saint is Saint Dismas. He’s the patron saint of prisoners. So far he’s done his job and watched over me. I’ve got no complaints there. So, what deal do Saint Dismas and I have? Just that I do my part by going to Mass every week in the prison chapel, unless I have a damn good reason not to.

My third patron saint is one I’ve had reason to talk with many times in my life. Saint Jude, patron saint of desperate situations. I’d say being on Death Row for something I didn’t do is pretty desperate. And what does Saint Jude get? He just likes to watch and see what ridiculous predicament I find myself in next.

If I start to believe that the things I write cannot stand on their own merit, then I will lay down my pen. I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will think of me only as either someone on Death Row or someone who used to be on Death Row. I grow dissatisfied when I think of people reading my words out of a morbid sense of curiosity. I want people to read what I write because it means something to them—either it makes them laugh, or it makes them remember things they’ve forgotten and that once meant something to them, or it simply touches them in some way. I don’t want to be an oddity, a freak, or a curiosity. I don’t want to be the car wreck that people slow down to gawk at.

If someone begins reading because they want to see life from a perspective different from their own, then I would be content. If someone reads because they want to know what life looks like from where I stand, then I will be happy. It’s the ghouls that make me feel ill and uneasy—the ones who care nothing for me, but interest themselves only in things like people who are on Death Row. Those people give off the air of circling vultures, and there’s something unhealthy about them. They wallow in depression and their lives tend to follow a downward trend. Their spirits seem mostly dead, like larvae festering on summer-day roadkill. I want nothing to do with that energy. I want to create something of lasting beauty, not a grotesque freak show exhibit.

Writing these stories is also a catharsis for me. It’s a purge. How could a man be subjected to the things I have been and not be haunted? You can’t send a man toVietnamand not expect him to have flashbacks, can you? This is the only means I have of clearing the trauma out of my psyche. There are no hundred-dollar-an-hour therapy sessions available for me. I have no need of Freud and his Oedipal theories; just give me a pen and paper.

I’ve witnessed things in this place that have made me laugh and things that have made me cry. The environment I live in is so warped that incidents that would become legends in the outside world are forgotten the next day. Things that would show up in newspaper headlines in the outside world are given no more than a passing glance behind these filthy walls. When I first arrived at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit located in Tucker,Arkansas, in 1994, it blew my mind. After being locked down for more than ten years, I’ve become “penitentiary old,” and the sights no longer impress me as much. To add the preface of “penitentiary” to another word redefines it. “Penitentiary old” can mean anyone thirty or older. “Penitentiary rich” means a man who has a hundred dollars or more. In the outside world a thirty-year-old man with a hundred dollars would be considered neither old nor rich—but in here it’s a whole ’nother story.

The night I arrived on Death Row I was placed in a cell between the two most hateful old bastards on the face of the earth. One was named Jonas, the other was Albert. Both were in their late fifties and had seen better days physically. Jonas had one leg, Albert had one eye. Both were morbidly obese and had voices that sounded like they had been eating out of an ashtray. These two men hated each other beyond words, each wishing death upon the other.

I hadn’t been here very long when the guy who sweeps the floor stopped to hand me a note. He was looking at me in a very odd way, as if he were going to say something but then changed his mind. I understood his behavior once I opened the note and began reading.

It was signed “Lisa,” and it detailed all the ways in which “she” would make me a wonderful girlfriend, including “her” sexual repertoire. This puzzled me, as I was incarcerated in an all-male facility and had seen no one who looked like they would answer to the name of Lisa. There was a small line at the bottom of the page that read, “P.S. Please send me a cigarette.” I tossed the note in front of Albert’s cell and said, “Read this and tell me if you know who it is.” After less than a minute I heard a vicious explosion of cursing and swearing before Albert announced, “This is from that old whore, Jonas. That punk will do anything for a cigarette.” Thus Lisa turned out to be an obese fifty-six-year-old man with one leg. I shuddered with revulsion.

It proved true that Jonas would indeed do anything for cigarettes. He was absolutely broke, with no family or friends to send him money, so he had no choice but to perform tricks in order to feed his habits. He was severely deranged, and I believe he also liked the masochism it involved. For example, he once drank a sixteenounce bottle of urine for a single, hand-rolled cigarette. I’d be hardpressed to say who suffered more—Jonas, or the people who had to listen to him gagging and retching as it went down. Another time he stood in the shower and inserted a chair leg into his anus as the entire barracks looked on. His reward was one cigarette. These weren’t even name-brand cigarettes, but generic, hand-rolled tobacco that cost about a penny each.

As I’ve hinted, Jonas was none too stable in the psychological department. This is a man whose false teeth were painted fluorescent shades of pink and purple, and who crushed up the lead in colored pencils in order to make eye shadow. The one foot he had left was ragged and disgusting, with nails that looked like corn chips. One of his favorite activities was to simulate oral sex with a hot sauce bottle. He once sold his leg (the prosthetic one) to another inmate, then told the guards that the inmate had taken it from him by force. The inmate got revenge by putting rat poison in Jonas’s coffee. The guards figured out something was wrong when Jonas was found vomiting blood. He was the single most reviled man on Death Row, hated and shunned by every other inmate. A veritable prince of the correctional system. You don’t encounter many gentlemen in here, but Jonas stood out even in this environment.

I do not wish to leave you with the impression that Albert was a gem, either. He was constantly scheming and scamming. He once wrote a letter to a talk show host, claiming that he would reveal where he had hidden other bodies if the host would pay him a thousand dollars. Being that he had already been sentenced to death in both Arkansas and Mississippi, he had nothing to lose. When he was finally executed, he left me his false teeth as a memento. He left someone else his glass eye.

For all the insanity that takes place inside the prison, it’s still nothing compared with the things you see and hear in the yard. In 2003, all Arkansas Death Row inmates were moved to a new “Super Maximum Security” prison in Grady, Arkansas. There really is no yard here. You’re taken, shackled of course, from your cell and walked through a narrow corridor. It leads to the “outside,” where without once actually setting foot outside the prison walls, you’re locked inside a tiny, filthy concrete stall, much like a miniature grain silo. There is one panel of mesh wire about two feet from the top of one wall that lets in the daylight, and you can tell the outdoors is beyond, but you can’t actually see any of it. There’s no interaction with other prisoners, and you’re afraid to breathe too deeply for fear of catching a disease of some sort. I went out there one morning, and in my stall alone there were three dead and decaying pigeons, and more feces than you can shake a stick at. The smell reminds me of the lion house at the Memphis Zoo, which I would visit as a child.

When you first enter you have to fight against your gag reflex. It’s a filthy business, trying to get some exercise. Before we moved here we had a real yard. You were actually outside, in the sun and air. You could walk around and talk to other people, and there were a couple of basketball hoops. Men sat around playing checkers, chess, dominoes, or doing push-ups. A few would huddle in corners smoking joints they bought from the guards.

I’d been there less than two weeks when one day on the yard my attention was drawn to another prisoner who had been dubbed “Cathead.” This unsavory character had gained the name because that’s exactly what he looked like. If you were to catch an old, stray tomcat and shave all the fur off its head you would be looking at the spitting image of this fellow. Cathead was sitting on the ground, soaking up the sun and chewing a blade of grass that dangled from the corner of his mouth. He was staring off into space as if absorbed in profound thought. I had been walking laps around the yard and

taking in the scenery. As I passed Cathead for the millionth time he looked up at me (actually it was more like he was seeing some other place, but his head turned in my direction) and he asked, “You know how you keep five people from raping you?” I was caught off guard, as this was not a question I had ever much considered, or thought I’d ever be called upon to answer. I looked at this odd creature, waiting for the punch line to what I was hoping was a joke. He soon answered his own question: “Just tighten your ass cheeks and start biting.” I was horrified. He was dead serious, and seemed to think he was passing on a bit of incredibly well-thought-out wisdom. The only things going through my mind were What kind of hell have I been sent to? Is this what passes for conversation here? I quickly went back to walking laps and left Cathead to his ponderings.

Prison is a freak show. Barnum and Bailey have no idea what they’re missing out on. I will be your master of ceremonies on a guided tour of this small corner of hell. Prepare to be dazzled and baffled. If the hand is truly quicker than the eye, you’ll never know what hit you. I know I didn’t.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004425365882 Christopher Thomas

    For updates on the WM3 case visit us at WM3 Seeking Justice on Facebook..

  • caseevidence

    for important information on the wm3 case, visit wm3truth com

    also:
    Father of WM3 murder victim certain who killed 3 boys
    By Todd Moore
    http://www.terryhobbs.com/2012/06/todd-moore-sets-record-straight.html

  • David A. Carroll

    Wow, the remainder of us heathens always thought prison was about rehabilitation!  I can’t say this without sounding stereotypical, but Damien’s book should be required reading in high schools across the country.  Kind of a “mobile ap” for the old “Scared Straight” program.

  • LeonardNicodemo

    Double post, apologies.

  • LeonardNicodemo

    Let Mr. Echols know that the city of Salem, MA is happy to have him and we hope he enjoys his time here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erinjwilliams Erin Williams

    Tom, I would love if you could ask Damien how his eyes are now and how has his body recovered in the last year from nutritional deficiencies (I think I remember him saying he wass Vit D deficient from the lack of sunlight) with now being able to eat real food. Much love to him and Lori from my husband Phillip and I, we both have been following the case for a decade and have supported the legal fund along the way.

  • Scott B

    I remember watching the documentary on HBO, and though it’s been enough years that I forget the exact quote, but I remember the step-father of one of the boys making a comment, I believe about a knife, that made me think, “Hey. I did I just hear what I think I heard him say, and on film? How the hell would he know that if he wasn’t involved?”  I mentioned it to a few others that knew the film and they had to rewatch it and mentioned that it was most curious, also.

  • Scott B

    I remember watching the documentary on HBO, and though it’s been enough years that I forget the exact quote, but I remember the step-father of one of the boys making a comment, I believe about a knife, that made me think, “Hey. I did I just hear what I think I heard him say, and on film? How the hell would he know that if he wasn’t involved?”  I mentioned it to a few others that knew the film and they had to rewatch it and mentioned that it was most curious, also.

    • LeonardNicodemo

       From the wikipedia:

      “John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of victim Christopher Byers, gave
      a knife to cameraman Doug Cooper, who was working with documentary
      makers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky while they were filming the first Paradise Lost feature. The knife was a folding hunting knife, manufactured by Kershaw.
      According to the statements given by Berlinger and Sinofsky, Cooper
      informed them of his receipt of the knife on December 19, 1993. After
      the documentary crew returned to New York, Berlinger and Sinofsky
      reported to have discovered what appeared to be blood on the knife. HBO
      executives ordered them to return the knife to the West Memphis Police
      Department. The knife was not received at the West Memphis Police
      Department until January 8, 1994.
      Byers initially claimed the knife had never been used. Blood was
      found on the knife and Byers then stated that he had used it only once,
      to cut deer meat. When told the blood matched both his and Chris’ blood
      type, Byers said he had no idea how that blood might have gotten on the
      knife. During interrogation, West Memphis police suggested to Byers that
      he might have left the knife out accidentally, and Byers agreed with
      this.”

      • Scott B

         That’s very interesting. Nice to see someone that doesn’t have “CRS” like I do today.  I just remember that what the guy said about the knife nagging at me for weeks.  I think there’s more to what he said, and what was said around it that made him bring it up, but it was such an obvious red flag that I remember thinking, ‘I CAN’T be the only one that noticed this, can I?”  I wondered why lawyers weren’t beating down the doors of the DA’s office, the prison, Damien’s cell, and the media?

  • DrewInGeorgia

    I have no words to adequately express my empathy and sympathy for you Mr. Echols. It is so good to hear that you want to use the tools that helped you survive to help others in the future. Thank you so much for your time on the show and the provided reading material, I wish you the best in all your future endeavors.Thanks for the show OP!

  • Daniel Grant

    This all sounds so awful.  A question for Tom, not meant in a negative way, how do we on the outside know what to believe and what not to believe?  Again, I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I just can’t imagine how this stuff goes on in prisons in general with no oversight.

    It reminds me of a story John Grisham used to tell about an ignorant country boy who was victimized by the system… it was a factor in his career change.

    I also agree with the previous caller.  Being “different” as child is a special kind of awful… nothing to whine about, but I could certainly believe it would make someone a target.

  • Mouse_2012

    What a sad story, goes to show the corruption of our Justice system. The need for blood is more for than Justice

  • gala1

    I was going to ask who stood by him for all these years.

    Friends, family, people from before he was imprisoned, did any of them stood by him and stayed his friends/family now?

  • Scott B

    Damien nailed it about the culture of ignorance. It is sought out and deliberate among bullies, to whom anything that isn’t of them and theirs is to be hated.  There are no words that anyone can offer them for explanation and peace. It’s not just that they do not understand, it’s that they do not want to understand. They refuse understanding.

    • TinaWrites

      I cannot believe that I’ve seen examples of this, but I have.  Too close to home; too close to power!

      • Scott B

         It’s an envy issue in some cases. They don’t want you to be better than they are. It’s most prevalent in inner cities and poor rural areas. “If I can’t be that [whatever 'that' is], then I’m going to make sure you aren’t, either.”  It’s the rural bigot and the inner city thug. It’s the same coin.

  • DrewInGeorgia

    The caller that commented on the For-Profit Prison problem in this country was OP.

    • TinaWrites

      Yes!  Tom, could OnPoint do a program about this?  You possibly did already, but since “privatization” is so much a part of the Presidential campaign issues, showing what has happened to the prisons could be very time sensitive right now.  Thanks!

  • TinaWrites

    Wow!  What an interview!

    After the psychologist or psychiatrist called in, Damien started talking about “it’s a choice”.  In answer to the caller, and for some time after that, Damien filled us with some of the best advice I’ve ever heard in my life, and with such clarity!  

    • TinaWrites

      I forgot to add, Thank you, Damien!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1369227467 Nelie Rea

    I was really touched hearing this interview with Mr. Echols, especially by how he has been able to see so clearly that his anger and resentment at theincredible  injustice he suffered was hurtful to himself and let go of that–and by his desire to help teach others what he learned in dealing with everything he dealt with. That he can overcome such horrible and unjust treatment, and be an advocate for others, is so impressive and inspirational.

  • Jolynn1

    I saw this yesterday while watching TV at Myrtle Beach.  I was so blown away about this story.  It goes to show how our judicial system is so corrupted.  I too have a cousin on death row for an accused murderer.  I hope to see him WALK one day.  I give all 3 of you guys big HUGS and am so sorry for what you all went through…. 

  • Michele

    What is happening with the investigation to find the actual killer(s)?  I feel great empathy for these men for what they endured.  At the same time 3 little boys were murdered.  Where is the final justice for them?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004429022985 Blooden Thundar

    deleted

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004429022985 Blooden Thundar

    I have been following the story of the West Memphis Three for about 12 years now, i even donated to the defense fund by buying a T-shirt. That being said, im so incredibly glad these guys were able to be more or less exonerated. As a former misfit i can relate to being singled out in small down garbage. It was very interesting to hear about Damien’s struggles and i’m glad he got through it. Best of luck to you brother.

  • Hubba

    Excellent books and tapes re- working on oneself (psychologically and spiritually) while in prison.

    Bo Lozoff – The Prison-Ashram Project
    Book: We’re All Doing Time

    Robin Casarjian – The Lionheart Foundation
    Book: Houses of Healing

  • caseevidence

    Statement about Damien Echols stomping and killing a dog
    http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/joehb.html             

    Testimony by Jason Lance Crosby stating that heard Damien Echols talking about wanting to catch a bum with Jason Baldwin at one of the overpasses and torturing him to death just to see what it felt like.
    http://callahan.8k.com/images/j_crosby/report_06-08-93_01.jpg

    Echols’ psychiatric records http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/img/exh500.html
    about his history of violence and drinking blood

    Who was Damien Echols in spring 1993?
    http://wm3truth.com/damien-echols-profile/

    • Kyle Bentley

      Crosby admitted that he lied to get a lighter jail sentence and was strung out on drugs (by his own admission btw), and many teenagers have psychiatric problems, doesn’t make you a killer. There’s no proof of the dog stomping, it was all hearsay – the WMPD paid people for stories. NEXT?

    • caseevidence

      No one admitted to lying. That would be admitting to perjury.  Some teenagers have “psychiatric problems” but most do not have Echols’ psychiatric history of severe psychotic behavior and severe violence. The “dog stomping” was not hearsay.  It was direct testimony to the police.  There is NO evidence of the police paying for stories. Readers can read the links below and come to their own decisions.

      Misskelly lying  about not committing the crimes before he confessed to the crimes http://callahan.8k.com/images2/jm_polygraph.jpg

      Michael Carson’s (not “Crosby”) polygraph, which  shows he was telling the truth when told the police about Baldwin.  http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/img/mcpoly.html

      Carson denying he lied about Baldwin.
      http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/sun_article_carson.html

      Jessie Misskelley maintains guilt to his lawyers – Summer 1993
      http://wm3truth.com/jessie-misskelley-maintains-his-guilt-june-to-september-1993/

  • Jo

    This book is on my birthday wish list so will be reading it next week.
    The exerpt is chilling. I read his other book, Almost Home, and am very impressed with his writing ability. I wish the best for him.

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  • http://Facebook.com/tanyaisa Tanya Hawkins Payne

    Hey Jo, My birthday was Sept. 18 the day of the nationwide release………what a wonderful birthday present indeed!!

  • ddd12345

    Damien Echols story would be so inspiring if it wasn’t for one small detail.  He is totally guilty of the crimes he was convicted of.  The movies are just silly one sided propaganda.

  • Alan Thomas

    I have been following this case for about five years now, since belatedly discovering the documentaries (just got the presumably final one from Netflix and have watched a little over half of it).  There are a couple points that I think are important takeaways that are a little different from what is normally focussed on.
    First and foremost, it is the backward nature of so much of Southern culture and its social structures, including the “justice” system.  There are serious problems with police and prisons in many parts of the country, but in the South it is just absolutely endemic.  

    Related to this is the fact that while this intelligent, thoughtful, articulate white “goth” boy, so different from the social norm around him, broke through to the media (not only because of HBO but because it resonated with many celebrities and others in mainstream white America with closer ties to power structures), there are countless thousands of black men unfairly rotting in prison.  They are there either for possession of small amounts of drugs or because they were wrongly convicted* of more “mundane” murders (in liquor store robberies, or of gang members, etc.) due to errant eyewitness testimony and a rush to judgment out of a simple desire to close cases and find someone to pin them on, or for politically ambitious prosecutors to show their “toughness” on crime.  The overworked, underpaid, and too often incompetent and/or unsympathetic public defenders they are assigned are, to say the least, no help.

    These railroaded black men don’t get HBO documentaries or celebrities rising to their defense.  But what is happening to them, just due to its systematic nature and its scale, is all the more of an outrage.

    Throughout this nation’s history, it is the South that has held us back from progress.  Their poverty, obesity, illiteracy, and poor health drag national statistics downward to this day; and the political party they support threatens, if given national power, to drag us down with them in other ways.  We must continue to struggle not to let this benighted region and culture take the reins of power ever again.

    *Or, just as often, pressured by everyone around them to plea bargain to get a lesser sentence–and when their own lawyers show no enthusiasm for fighting the charges in court, who can blame them for being frightened into pleading guilty to a crime they didn’t commit?

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  • Regular_Listener

    One of the deeply troubling things about America today is the state of criminal justice.  We have the highest incarceration rate of any civilized country.  And stories like the West Memphis Three’s seem to be far too common.  Far too many of us have very little faith in the justice system as a result of personal experiences and stories we have heard.  I would like to know why I never hear of police officers or prosecutors being called to account for sending innocent people to prison or screwing up investigations or torturing prisoners etc. 

    But it also leaves the question hanging of, if it wasn’t these 3 who committed this horrible crime, then who did?  Clearly there are some people who feel that Echols was probably guilty, and at least one has posted records in this discussion that point to him being a very troubled young man.  What about the physical evidence?  Maybe the documentaries go into this in more detail.

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