Matt Pais, @mattpais
RedEye movie critic
January 14, 2013
Details of the West Memphis 3 investigation can only be described as ridiculous.
“They had one guy say that I looked at him and made him levitate. And this is in police records,” says Damien Echols, who in 2011 was freed from prison after 18 years on Death Row. “To me it’s not the misinformation that’s so unbelievable, it’s the fact that people took it seriously … It was all made-up crap.”
As chronicled in the “Paradise Lost” documentary series and the new doc “West of Memphis” (opening Friday), Arkansas teenagers Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr. were tried and convicted of murdering three children in 1993 despite a lack of physical evidence against them. Baldwin and Misskelley were both sentenced to life in prison but, like Echols, were released in late 2011 after years of witnesses’ recanted testimony, widespread protests (by celebs including Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, among others) and, as shown in “West of Memphis,” new forensic findings that not only unraveled the already shoddy case against them, but pointed blame at a new suspect.
At the Peninsula Hotel, the 38-year-old Echols—who stares out the window and asks, “What is Neiman Marcus?”—talked about when the unthinkable becomes normal, surviving in prison and, despite his remarkable sense of calm, what aspect of pop culture gets on his nerves anyway.
I’ve sat here across from Ben Affleck, Will Ferrell; these are people coming from a much different place than you are. Does it feel surreal to do a press tour like this?
It does. I’ve spent not only 18 years in prison but almost the last 10 of it was in solitary confinement—so almost no human interaction whatsoever. So whenever I do get out, to say it’s overwhelming doesn’t even come close to articulating what it’s like. For the first two to three months I was in such a deep state of shock and trauma from that alone that I couldn’t take anything in. I needed someone with me all the time to help me with just about everything.
What’s an example of that?
I couldn’t do things. Say I had a doctor’s appointment and had to find my way to a doctor’s office. I couldn’t go by myself because I had been in a box for almost 20 years. I had never had to navigate from point A to point B during that time so I would need someone with me to get me there. Things out here that people panic over I would not think anything of it. But the things out here that people just take for granted would make me panic. We lived in New York for a year. I’m on the subway, a crazy person freaks out and goes nuts on the subway and everybody else is panicking and me I’m like, “I’ve seen this everyday for almost 20 years.” Whereas I go to the bank and I’m standing in line trying to figure out how to fill out paperwork, that’s what sends me into a tailspin. I’m not used to stuff like that.
Would you ever get involved if something like that was happening? If everyone else is freaking out and someone’s going wild on the train, would you try to diffuse the situation?
I think a lot of times in situations like that you can’t talk to ‘em. A friend of mine was on the subway, it was this really weird situation where this guy is touching this woman on the subway and she doesn’t know who he is. She keeps saying, “Stop, stop touching me, leave me alone,” and everybody on the subway is just looking down. They don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to say anything about it. So the next stop when the door opens, my friend stands up and shoves the guy off the train, pushes him out the door and [it closes] real quick. People on the train started clapping, and he turned around, he was like, “What are you clapping at? Why didn’t somebody here do something about it?” Stuff like that. Yeah, I would like to think if anybody was in any kind of real danger or anything like that I would like to think that I would something to try to help ‘em because I would want somebody to do the same thing for me.
“West of Memphis” doesn’t show much of you guys professing your innocence. You make it clear that you’re innocent, of course, but some people might see the film and be like, “Man, if that happened to me, I’d be screaming from the top of my lungs, ‘What are you people talking about?’” Can you go through how much of that there was in reality?
There is so much that you have to take into consideration. One, you’re basically in a hostage situation. You’ve been taken hostage. People say [they would do] things like that, but when an actual hostage situation takes place they don’t do those things. You’re thinking, “If [I] cooperate with these people, then they won’t kill me.” At least in a hostage situation if the hostage taker kills you, at least you know they’re going to jail. In the situation that we were in, if they kill you they’ll probably just going to get a medal. You might scream or something one time, but they’re going to beat the hell out of you. You’re not going to do it again. It’s not like it’s a hard thing for them. These are people who a lot of times get off on hurting you. To them it’s a fun time. They sit around laughing and joking about it afterwards. So you’re giving them what they want when you do something like that. Another thing you have to take into consideration is we were children—16, 17, 18 years old. We had had our entire lives completely destroyed. Our entire worlds ripped apart. We had been sitting in jail for a year by the time we go to trial. You’re in so much shock and trauma by that point you’re not functioning the way you normally would. You’re not thinking at your top capacity or anything else. You’re just doing whatever you can do to survive.
What do you think when you look back at that old footage of you?
I don’t like to look back at it. I had to do it with the documentary … just because [his wife, Lorri Davis] and I were producers on it so we have to watch it and make a lot of decisions about it. It’s not fun for me. It’s not easy and it’s not pleasant. It’s like not only are you watching yourself at your absolute lowest point in life, but the entire world is going to get to see you that way, too. It’s hard. It’s really hard. Not only that, but for me the only thing I can compare it to is when Vietnam vets talk about having flashbacks. When you watch this stuff, you’re reliving it again. You never get to really heal. You’re constantly ripping wounds open. But for us it’s a necessary evil. And the only way we’re going to have a sense of closure in this case is if we’re exonerated, [if] the person who belongs in prison is in prison and [if] the public officials who did this to us [are] held accountable. So even though I don’t like it, it’s not pleasant for me to have to relive it; it’s still something we have to do right now.
After the press tour is over and the movie comes out, will you go back and watch this doc or push it away?
Push it away. That’s one of the things that I’m looking forward to the most. This case has already eaten up almost 20 years of my life. The last thing I want to do is keep giving more to it. I’m looking so forward to the day whenever we don’t have to talk about it anymore or watch it anymore and can just move on into the future with something completely un-case related. It gets to the point sometimes where you start to feel like people don’t even see you as a person. They see you as the case. And you don’t even have an identity separate from the case anymore. And that’s a really hard thing to deal with.
The movie makes a convincing case against Terry Hobbs [the stepfather of Steve Branch, one of the boys who was killed]. Is that who you believe is guilty?
I don’t know. What I always say now is it’s not my job to point the finger. What I say is let the evidence point the finger. When we went to court they did not have any physical evidence against us. They were using ghost stories and rumors and myths and hearsay. With Terry Hobbs at least you have concrete physical evidence. They have DNA that not only puts him at the scene of the crime but also [they also have DNA of] the man that was providing him with an alibi. Both of their DNA was found at the crime scene. He always said he never saw any of the victims that day. We have three eyewitnesses who say they saw him with all three victims within an hour of the time they were murdered.
What would you say to him if he walked in?
Nothing. I think whether he did or he didn’t do it—if he didn’t then there’s nothing I could say to him. If he did do it then a person who would do something like that there’s probably not much you can say that’s going to penetrate into their consciousness.
Speaking of surprising people walking into a room, what was the first thing that went through your head the first time Eddie Vedder came to visit you?
Just hoping everything went OK. I was hoping people didn’t mess—a lot of times when people come to see you in prison, the guards make them miserable because they want to sever all your connections to the outside world, and I was just hoping they didn’t make it as unpleasant as they possibly could for him. It’s weird, whenever Eddie would come visit, because when you’re sitting there talking and you’re eating candy and drinking sodas and talking about baseball, the last thing on your mind is, “This is the guy who’s singing a song I heard on the radio.” You’re sitting with your friend. You’re taking with your friend. You’re talking with someone who has come to be with you when you’re at your lowest point in life.
It seems like you do an incredible job of maintaining calm and avoiding the bitterness that would be a struggle for many in your position. What advice do you have for people to get to that place?
I think you have to want something else more than you want to hold onto the bitterness. That’s how it was for me; for the first two to three years I was in prison I was really, really angry. From the moment I woke up in the morning I would be just pissed off. As soon as my eyes would open, my first thoughts of the day are, “I’m not supposed to be here. They have no right to do this to me.” And then not only are you going through this external hell but you’ve also got this internal hell going on at the same time. And I realized, there was a quote in Buddhism they say the Buddha once said, “Holding onto anger like that is like drinking poison in hopes that it’ll kill the other person.” It won’t. It’s not hurting anybody but you. You have to let go of it for yourself. And that’s what led me to meditation in the first place. Eventually over the years while I was in prison I received ordination in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism. It’s the same tradition they use to train the samurai… That’s what I chose to focus on. That’s what I chose to give my time to. Instead of focusing on the things that could have made me angry, the things that could have made me bitter and allowing resentment to build.
Those first few months, was that all playing out internally or did you—I think a lot of people would get so frustrated and just be screaming.
You don’t want to die. If you scream like that in there they’re going to kill you. Whenever I first got there, they took me, the guards, it wasn’t even anything personal, they took me to the part of the prison they call the hole. It’s in complete isolation from the rest of the cell. It’s just like a “Welcome to the neighborhood” thing. They’d come at midnight, 1 o’clock in the morning, chain me to the bars of the cell and beat the living hell out of me. They beat me so bad I pissed blood for a while. The only reason they didn’t kill me is because a deacon from the Catholic church found out what they were doing and goes to the warden and says, “If this doesn’t stop, I’m going to go public. I’m going to start telling people about it.” The last thing you want to do in there is draw more attention to yourself.
What’s something in daily life that still frustrates you a little bit? I’m sure even someone with your level of calm must find something somewhat irritating.
What do I find irritating? When I go to the movies and there’s nothing on but like “Twilight” movies. Something like that. That can be kind of irritating. [Laughs.]
Because I’m not a 16-year-old girl. [Laughs.] It’s weird. I guess the things that irritate me are … it’s not irritate me as much as it is I guess sometimes you can just get worn absolutely raw. Worn down. Things like we’ve been on the road for 2 1/2 months and you’re just wanting to see your home again. You’re wanting to relax again. You’re wanting time when you’re not talking about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you in your life.
And “Twilight” is not a satisfying escape from that?
No. [Laughs.] No. I did go see the last one the other day. I had to go see it with Lorri.
What’d you guys think?
I thought it was the best out of the series, I guess.
You’ve seen all five?
I think I’ve seen three or something like that. We went to one of ‘em when we were in New Zealand. One day there was nothing else to do so we go see it, and I swear to God I looked around, I’m the only guy in the whole theater. The girls in there, when they would have to go to the bathroom, they would get up and run because they were scared they were going to miss 10 seconds of it. What are you going to miss? They’re going to be doing the same thing when you come back that they’re doing now. Looking angsty [laughs] and talking.
Why was the last one the best?
It had a really long fight sequence. [Laughs.]
I have to ask your feelings on the death penalty now and if you’d ever want to get involved in organizations dealing with that issue.
I think the death penalty will eventually fade away, not due to any leap in human consciousness or maturity or anything like that. I actually think it will fade away just because of economic reasons. I think states will more and more release we can’t really afford this anymore and we’ll do something else instead. I saw them execute—they saw they don’t execute the mentally retarded or the mentally handicapped or the mentally insane; they do it all the time. I don’t know if you read the book [Echols’ “Life After Death”] or not--
I haven’t had a chance.
I’ve seen them execute people--the worst one in Arkansas, a guy had shot his in-laws and then shot himself in the head trying to commit suicide. He survived it but he gave himself a lobotomy. He screwed himself up so bad that whenever they came to execute him they asked him, “What do you want for your last meal?” He says, “Pecan pie.” They bring him a pecan pie, he eats half of it, they come to get him to execute him, he wraps the other half up and says, “I’m going to save this until after.” They’re killing people that don’t even have the mental capacity to realize they’re being put to death.
I read that you live in Salem, Mass. now, is that right?
We moved about two months ago.
Does that seem ironic at all?
Kind of, but it’s also good. The way we were looking at it, it’s like they already made these mistakes once upon a time so they don’t want to repeat ‘em. So there’s that aspect of it. And also just due to the history of the place it’s made it like a Mecca for anyone who practices any form of alternative spirituality whatsoever. We can walk one street over from our house and get Reiki or acupuncture. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a tarot card reader somewhere. It’s finally like I’m in the majority instead of the one who stands out.
Shouldn’t tarot card readers know the rock is coming and get out of the way?
[Laughs.] See, now that’s physics. I’m not good with that.
On perceptions of Death Row inmates: “People have that image in society like it is some sort of badass thing. Politicians try to perpetuate this myth that people on Death Row are like these Hannibal Lecter genius criminal types. And it’s not true. The average person on Death Row is a pretty sad, beat-up individual. The average IQ on Death Row is only 85 to begin with. You’re dealing with people that are damaged in so many ways. There’s nothing badass or anything else about ‘em. It’s just broken people.”
If he feels like a celebrity: “Not really. Just because I guess when you think of a celebrity, for me anyway, I think of someone they’re making a choice to be a performer. And for us we aren’t known, me or the other two guys, we aren’t known for something we’ve done. We’re known for something that was done to us. It feels like a whole different thing. Usually when people come up to you it’s to express sympathy a lot of times. It’s not like somebody’s coming up saying, ‘Hey, I saw your last movie, I thought it was great.’ It’s more like they come up and they say, ‘I’m really sorry for what was done to you. I’m glad you’re out. I’m hoping you have great luck in the future.’”
On his relationship with Jesse and Jason now: “Jesse doesn’t really have a relationship with much of anyone. He only had an IQ of 68 to begin with, and you add all of this crap on top of it and it pretty much screwed up any chance he had of living a normal life again. He doesn’t come out of his house; he doesn’t talk to anybody. He doesn’t go anywhere. From what I’ve heard he’s scared to death they’re going to find a way to put him back in prison. Jason is in Seattle now. We went out there the day after we got out—we went to Eddie Vedder’s house and Jason likes Seattle so much that he said, ‘This is where I want to live at.’ So he’s enrolled in college out there now and he eventually wants to go to law school and get his law degree and maybe try to help people who are in the same situation we were. We talk once a week or so.”
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
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