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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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