Damien Echols, left, and Lorri Davies pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
SALEM, Mass. - He went from an accused devil-worshiping witch on
Arkansas' death row to living in the land of persecuted witches.
18 years and 78 days, Damien Echols lived mainly on death row, a decade
of that in solitary confinement, for one of Arkansas' most notorious
crimes - the murders of three 8-year-old Boy Scouts. Echols and two
other men convicted in the killing became known as "The West Memphis 3."
38, he's free again after DNA evidence shed new light on the case. He
walks the streets of Salem, Mass., a community still shadowed by the
Salem Witch Trials over 300 years ago. Witch memorials and cemeteries
stand between local businesses and resturants. Here, he says, he fits
"It's the only place we considered living," Echols says,
dressed in all black with tattoo covered arms and dark sunglasses tucked
behind his long black hair. "It's the freakiness of it all. Salem has
an incredibly high degree of acceptance for anything outside the norm."
murders of the three boys - Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher
Byers - continue to be a polarizing question for many. In July of 2007,
new DNA evidence was presented that could not place Echols and his
co-defendants at the scene. But it fell short of clearly exonerating
Echols and the other two men entered Alford pleas, meaning
they did not admit guilt but agreed that prosecutors had enough
information to win a conviction.
Scott Ellington, a District
Prosecuting Attorney for the 2nd judicial district of Arkansas who
handled the Alford plea deal, says no one can be sure of Echols' guilt -
"People are divided. A lot of people believe they
are guilty and should still be in jail," Ellington said. "But many of
those understand that retrying a 20-year-old case would be nearly
impossible . . . It's probably 10 to 1. For every 10 contacts we have
saying 'exonerate the West Memphis 3,' we get one saying 'How do you
sleep at night knowing that you let three murderers go free?"
And so, Echols has found his way here, to Salem. In the 17th Century,
more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were
executed during the mass witch hunt hysteria in Salem. Following the
trials and executions, many involved in the cases publicly confessed
their errors and in 1957, the state of Massachusetts officially
apologized for the trials.
Echols says he identifies with the witch trials, which for many, epitomize paranoia and injustice in the judicial system.
the level of persecution," Echols says softly. "They sentenced me to
death - and it was the exact same thing. They accused me of being a
Satanist, of committing human sacrifices and all these things which were
the exact same things as the people back then. Fortunately they weren't
able to kill me like they were the people they hung here."
he was 19, Echols was sentenced to execution by lethal injection for
being the ringleader of the infamous West Memphis 3. His two friends
Jason Baldwin then 16, and mentally impaired Jesse Misskelly Jr., 17,
were sentenced to life in prison. The three were let out of prison in
2011, after more than 18 years of incarceration.
says, is a spiritual Mecca for people who are different. "Pretty soon
after those trials, whenever they killed people that they accused of
witchcraft, they realized pretty quickly afterwards - 'oh we messed up'
and they're not eager to do the same thing again - it's like they
learned their lesson back then."
Echols now lives in a historic
18th century home with his wife, Lorri Davis, 49, who he met and married
while on death row. Davis first reached out to Echols after she saw a
documentary about the case. They married in a Buddhist ceremony in a
prison visiting room in 1999. It was the first time the two had ever
While Salem residents are overwhelmingly supportive of Echols,
with some strangers even approaching him to ask for a hug, the
20-year-old controversial case still captivates the nation.
8-year-olds were found dead, stripped naked and hogtied with their own
shoelaces in Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis in May of 1993.
believed that the crime was part of a Satanic ritual which led them to
suspect Echols, a teenager who practiced the Wiccan brand of witchcraft
and who dressed in black. He had a passion for heavy metal metal and the
The case garnered the attention of celebrities including
actor Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam's
Eddie Vedder, who came out in support of the West Memphis 3. HBO
produced a series of documentaries bringing the case into the public
Despite intense pressure from celebrities and the public, the
state would not grant the men a new trial. However, prosecutors offered
the plea deal.
Echols says he was told, "You can sit in prison,
hope you survive all this time and maybe have a chance of suing the
state or you can sign the agreement and maybe go home before the week is
About a week later Echols walked off of death row and was a free man - nearly. "We aren't really free," Echols says
Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley all have three murder convictions on
their record as part of the conditions of the release. The criminal
record restricts their right to travel and the Alford plea mandates that
they are not allowed to sue the state for anything having to do with
Todd and Dana Moore, parents of Michael Moore, one of
the murdered Boy Scouts, maintain that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley
are guilty and should not have been let out of prison.
November of 2011, the couple requested that a documentary about the
killings be excluded from Academy Award consideration. They made the
request in a letter sent Nov. 22 to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences' documentary division. In it, the Moores argue that
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" glorifies Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and
Jessie Misskelley, who were released from prison in August after their
sentences were set aside and they pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
"Because of public pressure that exploded due to gross
misrepresentations of fact in the two previous documentaries, Michael's
killers were unjustly able to enter into a plea agreement, were released
from prison and now pose additional threats to society," the Associated
Press quoted the letter as saying.
"We implore the Academy
not to reward our child's killers and the directors who have profited
from one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated under the guise of a
Nevertheless, life is moving forward for Echols
and Davis in Salem. The couple is currently writing a book about their
correspondence while Echols was in prison.
Today, his new book, Life After Death, hits the stands, recounting his life story and detailing the trial and his years in prison.
Echols has also opened up a business just blocks from his home where he
practices Hermetic Reiki, a form of energy healing, that he learned in
"In prison there's almost no medical care, there's no
dental care, there were times when I was in prison - especially on death
row- they aren't gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy on
someone they plan on killing," Echols says. "There were times I got so
sick I didn't think I'd make it through the night. The only thing I had
to rely on was mediation and energy work."
Echols says his
interest in alternative forms of spiritual practice stems back to his
childhood and is one of the reasons he was targeted as an outcast in
"The reasons I was persecuted in the first place are
what saved my life and are now what allow me to help myself and other
people," Echols says.
For Echols, it won't be over until all three men are exonerated.
"I think it will eventually happen but it won't happen if we don't keep working for it," he says.
Now, Echols is pushing for an investigation into the murder of the three boys with the support of Lord of the Rings Directors Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Steve Braga, Lonnie Soury and Rachael Geiser.
don't know who did this," Echols says. "We shouldn't have to say who
did this. We should be able to allow the evidence to speak for itself."
Echols will return to Arkansas for the first time in November.