West Memphis 3: Life after death

3:21 PM, Sep 17, 2012   |    comments
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(CBS NEWS) -- Damien Echols is proof there is life after death.

Just a little over a year ago, Echols was facing execution on Arkansas' death row:

"You sleep on concrete. You walk on concrete. You sit on concrete. It wears the joints of your body out. You're living with death hanging over your head at any moment, and all these things combined wear you down," he said.

He wears glasses in order to see beyond four or five inches from his face, due, he says, to being enclosed in a very small space for so many years.

"Your eyes are just like any other part of your body. If it doesn't get use, it starts to wither away. And that's what happened to my eyes."

And then in August of 2011, after spending nearly two decades in Arkansas prisons, Damien Echols and two other men were suddenly released as part of a highly-unusual plea deal (which we'll explain later).

Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Miskelley are the West Memphis 3. in 1993, they were teenagers living in West Memphis, Ark., when they were arrested and later convicted of a horrific crime: the murders of three little boys.

"The community exploded," Echols recalled. "People were living in absolute horror, you know, trying to keep their kids off the street, not wanting to walk anywhere at night. People lived in terror."

There was no physical evidence connecting Echols, or the others, to the killings. And in fact, since then, considerable evidence has surfaced that supports their innocence.

But back in the early 1990s, a person with a partially-shaved head, black clothing and an interest in the occult stood out.

"A lot of it was just the way I looked," Echols told Moriarty, "and in a really small, extremely conservative, right wing town, things like that, anything in that vein, they say automatically, 'Oh well, you must be a Satanist. Therefore, we don't put anything past you.'"

The jury sentenced Echols to death, by lethal injection.

The trial was nothing, he says, compared to what he faced on death row.

"Most people have nothing like that in their frame of reference - having to live every single moment on your guard, even while you are sleeping," Echols said. "You never go into a deep sleep. You always have to be ready for the next person that's going to try to hurt you."

When Moriarty interviewed Echols as part of a "48 Hours" report on the case, he was spending nearly 24 hours a day in solitary confinement. He kept daily journals, which are now part of a new book.

After an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trial was shown on HBO in 1996, Echols' life changed once again, when supporters from all over the country began contacting him.

Lorri Davis, a landscape architect living in New York, even moved to Arkansas to work on the case. "Sometimes, people have callings in life. And this was mine. And so you just - I couldn't not hear it. I couldn't not go," she said. "I had to do whatever I could to get this man out of prison - that is what I had to do," she said.

And she wasn't alone. Johnny Depp explained on "48 Hours" why he and others connected to Echols' situation:

"He comes from a small town in Arkansas, I come from a relatively small town in Kentucky. As a teenager, as a kid growing up, I can remember kind of being looked upon as a freak. if you will, different, because I didn't dress like everybody else, because I didn't look like everybody else."

And then in December 2010, with mounting evidence pointing to the innocence of the West Memphis 3, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing - one both costly and potentially embarrassing for state officials.

And that brings us to the unusual plea deal, the idea of Stephen Braga, a highly-respected appeals attorney who volunteered his services.

"It's called an Alford plea," Braga explained. "It's basically a compromise where both sides, two sides that have been at war - for 18 years, in this case - decide that we want to end the case."

In return for agreeing not to sue the state, the three men were released from prison. But here's the bizarre part: While they could continue to insist they were innocent, each had to plead guilty!

"Didn't it feel a little like a deal with the devil?" asked Moriarty.

"It was," Echols said. "It was a deal with the devil, but it was a deal I really didn't have a choice to take if I wanted to live. My health was going fast. I was dying in there. I knew if I didn't take that deal, I was never going to live to see outside those walls."

Each was sentenced to serve 18 years and 78 days on the charge of first degree murder, with full credit for time already served.

Braga said no state official would have let them out of prison if they really believed they had committed the murders.

"So it doesn't really add up to what people think of as justice," said Moriarty.

"This is not a just result; this is a compromised result," Braga said. "A way for me to save Damien's life and get him off death row. A way to get freedom for Jason and Jessie. But it's a compromise . . . sometimes you have to hold your nose because it stinks a little bit, 'cause it's not justice."

Echols' joy at his release after 18 years in prison was widely covered by the media, but not the fears that followed since he left Arkansas for a new life in New York City.

"It's just like this free-floating anxiety," he said. "I've been injected into this whole new world. And I'm having to learn everything. There's fear constantly. Fear that you're gonna get lost. Fear you're gonna say the wrong thing, just because you're not used to social interaction . . . "

The simplest things, Lorri Davis said, that "most people would take for granted that he had never done before."

Davis went from seeing Echols once a week to 24 hours a day - yes, she married him in 1999 while he was on death row.

"I believed in his innocence, and then I fell in love with him. And those two things together, nothing else mattered," she said.

All that matters now, says Davis, is helping him adjust to a world that had moved on without him. "Filling out a deposit slip, being able to go from one address to another, and reading a map. He's never done any of those things."

"Does he become frustrated when he doesn't know things?" Moriarty asked.

"He wants to be able to move about in the world on his own and not to have to rely on me or anyone else, and that's frustrating to him," she replied. "But it'll come."

And the reality is, 37-year-old Echols may be out of prison, but he's not free. He remains a convicted felon, making it difficult for him to get a job.

Which may explain why he spends so much time among tattoo and graffiti artists.

"These are people who are sort of marginalized by society," he said. "Who aren't part of, you know, the mainstream. These are people who, you know, for a living get up and tattoo people. They're not people who put on business suits and go work every day."

Echols' notoriety is not likely to end soon. Besides his book, there is a new documentary coming out in December, and a Hollywood movie in production. But this month, Damien and his wife moved to a town where they think they'll fit in just fine: Salem, Mass., a town that knows too well the terrible consequences of misjudging people.

"Is there a time when you just want to be known as Damien Echols and not one of the West Memphis 3?" asked Moriarty.

"That's one of my driving forces in life right now," Echols replied. "I want to do things that stand on their own merit, that people appreciate, that mean something to people, that move them in some sort of way. That's what I want to be defined by - not by what was done to me."

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