Editor's note: John Brummett wrote a two-part series of columns on his interview with Death Row inmate Damien Echols. Both are reprinted here.
The first thing that strikes you about Damien Echols is his hollow, pale, frail appearance.
That hair, much shorter now than when he got convicted of capital murder 14 years ago at age 19, remains jet black. His big, darting eyes are nearly as dark.
That provides a striking contrast against Echols'alarmingly washed-out complexion. He's all skin and bones, especially in the sparse and chiseled face that was so round and fat in those news videotapes from 1993.
“I haven't seen the sun in five years,” he says in an East Arkansas drawl from the other side of the glass, where the Death Row guard at the Varner Unit has just deposited him.
This is for what will be a two-hour interview. I am here because there's a new burst of activity from well-meaning people trying to build public sentiment in his behalf.
We will cover spirituality, love and marriage, art, literature, politics and, above all, the pursuit of “magic.”
No, not black magic. It may well have been Echols' tragic lot to be misunderstood. It becomes apparent that, by magic, he refers to grandly ambitious pursuits of creativity and learning in search of a higher meaning, or God, within himself.
From Death Row, he became an ordained Buddhist. But he likes Catholicism and says he never misses mass. He has maintained that fateful childhood interest in Wicca, a religion extolling nature and the supernatural, and which, let us stress, isn't Satanism. He embraces none of those exclusively, but applies all generally, he says, to seek “divinity through discipline.”
He writes not-bad poetry. He wrote an autobiography. He writes songs. He reads books, thousands of them. He has a wish list at amazon.com. People have sent so many books he has to have them stored in a mini-warehouse. He draws. He does yoga. He meditates. For a while, he ran in place for more than two hours at a time, until his feet bled.
If he gets out of prison, he plans to learn first-aid, ballroom dancing and “every swim stroke imaginable,” just for starters. His goal is to live large, not live dead, as he believes so many in his family and childhood circle lived.
He says his father stared into the distance over morning coffee as Damien's mom begged him to communicate. Then dad disappeared for 10 years.
Echols was a bright, troubled, disadvantaged, rebellious and irreverent kid in West Memphis who dropped out of high school and frequented the public library. He cut an eerie image in an old black trench coat that he found in the closet of an ancient house.
Even now, more pensive but still given to calling people “(bleeping) morons,” he sees clothes as an expression. If he gets out of prison, he says, he'll look for leather pants and silk shirts.
“I mean, if you're going to just wear jeans and a ball cap, I don't see the point in getting dressed at all,” he says.
Like all Death Row inmates, Echols is permitted to go to a caged, roofed, concrete-floored “yard” five hours a week. But he declines. He says the sun can't get through anyway. He says there are too many pigeon droppings out there. He says mosquitoes nearly carried him off.
Echols says he weighs 145 pounds, down about 60 pounds from his paunchy state when charged and convicted with two other outcast teenagers with torturing and killing three little boys in what police called a satanic act.
“It's partly bad health,” he says of the weight loss. He's arthritic and his eyesight is failing. “But part of it is what I ate back then,” he says. “It was chocolate cereal with sugar for breakfast, pizza for lunch and a hamburger for dinner.”
Death Row wedding
Women in a book club in Little Rock were talking about what they might read next. One suggested Mara Leveritt's “Devil's Knot” because Damien Echols and that West Memphis case fascinated her.
There was an odd quiet.
Later, during kitchen cleanup, someone mentioned to the woman who had made the suggestion that one of their club members, that perfectly charming Lorri Davis, the landscape architect from New York City, was Damien Echols' wife.
You just don't tend to think that the woman next to you at the book club is married to a convicted child murderer.
You cannot begin to tell Echols' story without mentioning his wife of eight years, even as the woman clings tenaciously to a low profile.
“She doesn't want to become a freak show, the crazy woman married to a Death Row inmate,” Echols told me in a two-hour interview on that very Death Row last week.
Davis was living in New York City in 1995 when she got invited to an art house for an advance showing of “Paradise Lost.” That's the HBO documentary about the hysteria in West Memphis over that supposed satanic ritual that led to Echols and two other outcast teenagers getting convicted in the torture and killing of three little boys in 1993.
The story moved her. She wrote Echols and enclosed a red thread she'd found on a New York City sidewalk, calling it a symbol of human connection.
Echols had been on Death Row for more than a year. He said he'd given up and was ready to die. But he said he knew instantly that this woman was communicating with him “in a way that was totally new to me — that I'd been searching for.”
He wrote back. She responded. Then she wrote that she was coming to see him. “I was in love with her already,” he said. Was he nervous? “Scared to death.”
She moved to Little Rock and began coming to see him every week, visiting through this very kind of glass.
“We couldn't touch,” he said. “We'd each pull a hair out and give it to each other. We'd lean down to the screen and blow, to share our breath.”
After four years of touchless courtship, “I'm pretty sure we had the only Buddhist wedding ceremony in the history of Arkansas Death Row,” he said.
This political movement to get him freed, all this legal research, this public relations campaign, all these celebrities who have come to Echols' aid — Lorri Davis has done that.
“These have been the happiest 12 years of my life,” Echols said.
When I burst out laughing at the very idea of Death Row being better than childhood, he laughed, too.
Echols has a son, 14-year-old Seth, by a teenage girlfriend. The boy lives in Arizona and comes to visit maybe once a year. Echols told me: “When he was 10 or 11, he was into rap and he said, ‘I'm a pimp.' I said, ‘No, you're not. If I'd wanted a black child, I'd have adopted one from Africa. Pull your pants up and quit talking like that.' I don't want him turning out like me.”
Did he mean that he didn't want his kid winding up on Death Row on a highly controversial conviction?
“No, I mean a dropout, considered weird by his style and taste in music [Metallica, in Echols' case],” he said.
What if a governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison? “That would be worse than meaningless,” Echols said. “If you're going to do that, just kill me now instead of doing it slowly.”
Echols seems uncommonly bright. He is remarkably self-educated. He is thoughtful, if, at times, still a bit of the smart-aleck. He is strikingly articulate, save one reference to “I had saw.”
Is it possible that Echols was such a bizarre creature at 18 that he committed this crime? It's possible, I guess. But the authorities didn't make the case. And there was a mad rush to frenzied judgment.
The thought never occurred to me over two hours that I was inches from a child murderer. I wanted to shake his hand upon leaving, but, of course, couldn't.