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Monica Distefano '14
6th Grade Math Teacher
Major: Elementary Education
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- "West Memphis Three" Member Damien Echols Shares His Story with the Curry Community
"West Memphis Three" Member Damien Echols Shares His Story with the Curry Community
April 15, 2013
By the time Damien Echols was released from an Arkansas prison in 2011 he had spent exactly half his life-18 years-on death row for a crime he says he did not commit.
Echols recounted his ordeal before a standing room only crowd of hundreds of students, faculty, and community members in the Keith Auditorium on Curry College's Milton Campus.
Video - Q&A with Damien Echols and LorRi Davis
Echols, along with his wife Lorri Davis, whom he met while in prison, shared their remarkable fight to clear his name as part of the latest installment of "The Innocence Panel."
Echols' life changed in 1993, when, at the age of 18, he and two other teens Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were convicted of murdering three eight-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Police suspected that all three boys, Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, had been murdered as part of a satanic ritual.
"It was a time when law enforcement was talking about 'Satanic Panic," Davis said. "It was a strange time."
And Echols believed he was targeted because of the music he listened to and the books he read (Echols' favorite author is Stephen King).
A month after the bodies were discovered, Echols was arrested and interrogated. The police officers told him that Misskelley, Jr. had already confessed-a confession that Echols believed was coerced. Misskelley, Jr. has an IQ of 72, a level that generally indicates some level of cognitive impairment.
"It wasn't even coherent, it was like some bizarre Frankenstein thing they had patched together," Echols recalled. "At one point they [the officers] told me that my friend had already confessed and blamed it on me. So they said I had better start talking and telling my side of the story."
Echols did not confess, but was convicted along with the other teens despite, as Echols described it, "no real physical evidence." Echols was sentenced to death, while the two other teens received life sentences.
For years judges in Arkansas struck down appeal after appeal, while support grew for Echols and the "West Memphis Three." Actors like Johnny Depp supported the cause, while the case was documented in a series of documentaries titled Paradise Lost.
"The actual physical evidence is only 50% of the file," Echols told the audience. "The other 50% is getting people to care."
Lorri Davis played a major role in getting people to care. She began corresponding with Echols (the couple exchanged more than 3,000 letters), before moving to Arkansas to spearhead his legal defense. Both Echols and Davis found strength in each other.
"So many times, Damien kept me going," Davis said. "One of the reasons he got out of prison was our commitment to a spiritual life together."
Eventually Echols and the other teens were released. In 2011 they reached an agreement known as an Alford plea-- which allowed them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. No one else has been arrested for the murders.
It was a difficult decision for Echols. The deal did not fully exonerate him, and, as a part of the Alford Plea, Echols and his co-defendants could not sue the State of Arkansas. But, the benefit was immediate release. Echols knew he could stay behind bars and fight to clear his name, but it was a battle that would have taken years, or even decades.
Although Echols was a free man because of the Alford Plea, his life was changed forever. He suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after spending 18 years on death row. He combats that by meditating daily-something he used to do for up to seven hours while in prison.
"It was the one thing they couldn't take away from us," Echols said describing his daily ritual to deal with his mental and physical pain. "When all is said and done, what you learn after 18 years in prison is how to fight your way through things."
That revelation proved inspiring for some in the audience.
One young woman spoke of her own struggles with PTSD, and remarked how Echols' story gave her hope.
Another student asked the most provocative question of the night: Would Echols support the death penalty if someone else is eventually convicted of the murders?
For Echols, it was a tough question to answer.
"[My] first instinct is to say I want them to be exactly where I was," Echols said. "At the same time, I've seen the flaws and holes and how you can't really rely on our justice system to get it right. But, I do want to see this person brought to justice, because it's the only way we'll have a sense of closure."
In the end, Echols message was not about justice or revenge.
It was an inspiring and cautionary tale-summed up in the charge Echols issued to the students in the auditorium-many of whom are pursuing their own careers in the criminal justice field.
"I look around at all of you and I see potential jury members. You can make sure this doesn't happen to someone else."