The Big Mac Blog

Before “Making A Murderer” there was “The West Memphis Three”

Former death row inmate Damien Echols (left), Star-Telegram columnist Mac Engel and Echols’ wife, Lorri Davis (right) when he was promoting the documentary “West of Memphis” in 2013.
Former death row inmate Damien Echols (left), Star-Telegram columnist Mac Engel and Echols’ wife, Lorri Davis (right) when he was promoting the documentary “West of Memphis” in 2013. Star-Telegram

The Netflix documentary series “Making A Murderer” has become the streaming online service’s latest hit, and captured the attention of the world.

Did Steve Avery do it?

The evidence presented in the 10-hour series, which Avery has yet to see, makes you think that there is beyond a reasonable doubt he did not, but alas - SPOILER ALERT - he is in jail for a murder that a jury in the state of Wisconsin says he did commit.

Watching this series kicked the hamster in my brain back on its wheel after its 3-year nap about one of the most compelling people I have ever interviewed - Damien Echols.

Before Steve Avery, there was Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three. In 1993, three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas were murdered. Three then-teenage boys - Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley - were tried and convicted for the crime. Echols was sentenced to death.

Much like Avery’s wrongful conviction of sexual assault and his conviction for murder, the case involving The West Memphis Three was littered in holes, speculation, and considerable doubt.

In 1996, a documentary was made about the case, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” In 2012, the documentary “West Of Memphis” was released as well.

After a prolonged and public legal fight, all three men were released with the stipulations that the state would not admit wrongful convictions.

In 2013, Echols was with his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he had met while in jail, doing the rounds to promote the film when I interviewed them in Dallas. Here are some of the highlights.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Once it’s over – it became a passion for me in prison – there is no medical care in there. There were times I’d get really, really sick. Or nerve damage in your teeth from getting hit in the face. There are no caps, route canals, no crowns. None of that. Your choices are live in pain or have them pull your teeth out.

That’s when I like Reiki and became passion about those things. The long term goal when this is over what I’d like to do is have a small meditation center in Salem and share the things with others that helped me survive in desperate times. And be an inspiration to others who are desperate.

Mac Engel: During the sentencing why not stand up and scream ‘I’m not guilty?!’

Damien Echols: People always ask me – ‘If that were me’ – no you wouldn’t. It’s a hostage situation. How many times do you see a hostage screaming? Never. You are hoping that if you cooperate you can come out with the teeth left in your head. If you start that they will beat you down. It’s not any imposition for them. These people love doing it. The prison guards get off on hurting you. You scream or yell they will mess you up.

In a hostage situation you know that if they hurt you someone is going to kill them. In this situation they are probably going to get a medal.

Keep in mind we were kids – 16, 17, 18 – and had been sitting in a jail cell for a year before we go to trial. You have been devastated on every level of your being and you have holes blown in you like hand grenades.

ME: Did you have a moment and thought about not pleading guilty as part of the agreement to be released?

Damien Echols: No way. I knew I was going to die if I didn’t. I was so sick; I weigh 60 pounds more than I did in prison. I had gotten really sick. Stress. Bad nutrition. I hadn’t seen sunlight in 10 years. No fresh air. I had been beaten. I was losing my eye sight. And you could die by violence in prison any day of the week. I knew I would take that deal. I knew if that deal fell through I knew I was going to die in that cell.

That last week, I hadn’t slept in a week. I was doing everything I could just to get out of that courtroom. People always say you always seem so calm. It’s a weird trick – the more anxious I get the more calm I get.

I just wanted to get somewhere I could rest and I hope I don’t puke myself.

ME: Hard not to feel sympathy and feel sorry for you – how do you want us to look at you?

Damien Echols: As a source of inspiration. As people who can go through some of the worst things you can go through and came out the other side still swining. We don’t want them to watch this movie thinking, 'God, life is screwed up what a broken system.' We want them to think I want to do something with my life and I don’t want to waste this precious time that I have. Find what makes your life magical and meangingful and dedicate your life to that. We want them to feel that you can face impossible odds and come out of the other side still alive.

ME: How are neither of you not swallowed by bitterness, resentment, rage and anger?

Damien Echols: I was in the beginning. First two or three years in prison … do you know what it’s like to wake up pissed off? It’s not fun. From the moment your eyes open it’s I hate everybody. You are being tortured by other people and yourself.

There is a quote from Buddhism where they say holding on to that sort of thing is like holding poision in hopes that it will kill the other person. It doesn’t hurt anybody but yourself. I had to find a way to get past it. That’s what led me to meditation. That and my relationship with Lorri.

We didn’t think we would think one day we are going to be together. Never. It was our life is here now. It’s not something that may happen in the future it’s here and it’s now. We had to build something we could take sanctuary in. Those are the things that kept me together.

The Big Mac Blog: How has he changed since he was released?

Lorri Davis: The Damien that was in prison was very disciplined and purposeful. We both were. We were both disciplined by nature. It intensified because there is no quitting and a great deal of grief. Prison is hard so you have to make sure he is safe. He held his space in prison that kept him sane and healthy. That took a lot of work. Everyone thought including me that that man would walk out of prison and that he would be fine and he is going to be able to handle everything because he’s Damien. It took six months, it was The Moth, that taught me he is suffering and every day his filled with anxiety. He is fearful and he does not know what he is doing. He is moving about in the world and everyone thinks he’s fine. That whole time he wasn’t fine. Even now it’s trying to get people to understand it’s worse than coming back from a prisoner of war.

ME: Do you have moments where you felt sorry for yourself?

Damien Echols: Not really because that is something that always disgusted me. It made me not want to partake in it. It’s an extremely ugly thing. It’s also crippling – a self-fulfilling prophecy. You bring it on more and more and more.

ME: Did any of your loved ones say, 'What are you doing – the guy is in jail?'

Lorri Davis: I wanted four years to tell my family. I wanted to be solid and ground and understanding in what I was doing. I know someone is going to look at me like it was crazy Lori. I needed someone to realize I am working on a case and that this man is innocent. I was so driven. A little obsession in the beginning. Then it became one decision after another.

ME: What is it like to live on Death Row?

Damien Echols: The way we looked it was the way they teach race car drivers is not to look at the wall. You are going to move in the direction you are focused on. Look at the wall and sooner or later you are going to hit the wall. That’s the way we looked at that. We focused on what we can do – something to make us laugh and pull ourselves together.

ME: Do you talk to Jason Baldwin or Jessie Misskelley (the other 2 members of the West Memphis 3) any more?

Damien Echols: I don’t have a relationship at all with Jessie and from what I have heard he doesn’t have a relationship with anybody. He closed himself in his house and closed himself off. He had an IQ of 68 and then you dump all of this on him and he’s never going to have anything close to a real life. They say he is terrified they are going to find a reason to put him back in prison.

Jason, we pass messages back and forth. I’ll text all day but I hate talking on the phone. We text once a week. He’s in college now in Seattle and eventually wants to go to law school.

ME: How do you want people to eventually look at you both?

Lorri Davis: For them to be inspired. There is something to believing in something, whether it’s relationship, religion, what you do – just do it. To the fullest extent. It’s not cliché. We did it. Damien and I didn’t live this horrible, sad life. We had a great deal of fun. We did.

For the entire Part I of the interview click here.

Part II.

Part III.