Documentary about his murder conviction reminds Damien Echols of years he lost
BY CINDY PEARLMAN January 10, 2013 8:22PM
Updated: February 14, 2013 6:27AM
Damien Echols could be a bitter man. He spent 18 years with chains on his feet and bars in front of his face. He says there were beatings and days so bleak “that I literally reached a point where I didn’t think I could go on.”
But he tries not to focus on the people who put him there. “They robbed me of 20 years of my life,” he says. “They can’t rob me of another day.”
He was one of the accused murderers when three 8-year-old boys were found naked and dead in a ditch in West Memphis, Ark.
Three small-town Arkansas teenagers were convicted of the murders almost immediately. One confessed after being badgered by cops and two were given life sentences. For Echols, the sentence was death.
Now, his life is the basis of a documentary called “West of Memphis,” produced by Peter Jackson (“The Hobbit”) and opening Friday.
What is it like to watch the story of his life play out on the big screen?
“There are parts of it that make me really angry. There are parts I still can’t watch without my heart in my throat. I sit there and think, ‘How simple would my life have been if the police had done their work from the start,’ ” says Echols, now in his late 30s.
While he served time, Hollywood bigwigs including director Jackson, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder fought to free the teens, insisting they were wrongly convicted. Their case also was examined in three documentaries called “Paradise Lost.”
Is Echols surprised that the Hollywood types stayed the course?
“I became true friends with Peter and Eddie,” he says. “You don’t drop your friends after five minutes. I wasn’t a cause for them. For some reason, they identified with me.”
During his initial trial, some saw him as a petulant young man during his initial trial.
“I was 18, a little more than a child myself,” Echols says. “I was raised on all of these TV shows. I really did believe that you’re always innocent until proven guilty. I was thinking that surely it was impossible for them to prove something that I didn’t do.
“I thought, ‘Surely, at any moment, someone with an IQ over 10 will step up.’ ”
He learned that life is not an episode of “Law and Order.”
“Each day I thought I was in danger of losing my life in prison,” he says. “It was always from the guards and administration that I felt the most danger.
“Prison operates in absolute secrecy, with horrendous atrocities happening every single day. They didn’t like the fact that people were paying attention to the case. I was beaten.”
When he thought he couldn’t survive, “it was my wife Lorri who carried me through those times. She picked me up and dragged me along.”
Lorri Davis met him via letters when he was in jail and they eventually married. “The bond that Damien and I formed came from the writing. I learned about him as a person, and he’s an extraordinary person,” she says.
To secure their release in 2011, Echols says, “we had to sign an agreement that we can never sue the state of Arkansas. It would make life easier.”
After finally achieving his freedom, he admits, “I didn’t get used to it for months. I’d scream every night. Being free was a shock and trauma.
“Everyone thinks that you skip out of prison. Yes, I was happy and excited to be out, but no one understands how much trauma I went through.
“Time has helped. What it comes down to is you need the time.”
Last year Echols released a critically acclaimed memoir called “Life After Death.”
When “West of Memphis” was shown at Sundance last year, Echols received an unexpected gift from the mother of one of the murdered boys.
“Little Stevie’s mom, Pam Hobbs went with us to Sundance. She and her daughter and her sister all got together and bought me a pocket watch they engraved with the words: Time begins now.”
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