Memoir's missing element: Damien Echols doesn't confront his baffling behavior
October 7, 2012
In a powerful new memoir, Damien Echols discusses his 17 years on Arkansas' death row for the 1993 West Memphis child murders, a crime many now believe he didn't commit.
In "Life After Death," released last month to wide acclaim, Echols revisits his arrest at age 18, his sensational trial, his descent into prison's cruel, depraved underworld and his remarkable release last year. It's one hell of a read. With an artist's touch and eye for detail, he reveals himself not as a monster, but as an intelligent, gifted writer who denies any connection to the May 5, 1993, disappearance of three 8-year-old boys.
Indeed, evidence now points away from Echols and his two co-defendants — collectively known as the West Memphis Three — and, supporters say, toward an uncharged party still walking the streets.
Yet in trumpeting his innocence, Echols is content to echo the popular and grossly oversimplified story line advanced by his supporters, that police pinned the murders on him because they found him weird — he wore black, sported eccentric "skater'' haircuts and listened to heavy metal music.
"A bad hairdo, a black wardrobe, teenage angst-ridden 'poetry' … is enough to send you to prison. Death Row, no less,'' Echols writes.
The truth is far more complex, and it has been buried by Echols' deep-pocketed public relations machine.
Yes, there was a degree of "satanic panic"; there was hysteria, prejudice, police incompetence, an overreaching prosecution and crime lab blunders.
But the perfect storm that put Echols on death row includes one critical element he isn't willing to consider: his own baffling, often frightening behavior.
In "Life After Death," Echols glosses over his struggles with mental illness, his violent outbursts and his deep fascination with the occult — concerns that put him at the top of the suspect list — and omits well-documented antics such as blowing kisses to the victims' families and suggestively licking his lips in court. He devotes nary a word to the times he sneered at cameras, glared menacingly at onlookers or primped narcissistically into a handheld mirror, oblivious to anything but his own face.
Echols' odd behavior as a teen murder defendant may seem inconsequential now, as new evidence emerges that seems to exonerate him in the deaths of Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Chris Byers, second-graders whose nude bodies were found May 6, 1993, bound and mutilated in a woods in West Memphis. Yet that behavior, omitted in national media accounts, is critical to understanding what many now liken to a modern-day Salem witch hunt.
Not only did that behavior create an indelible image that hastened his conviction, there are lingering suspicions — and one of Echols' relatives now asserts as much — that he may have deliberately baited authorities in an illogical, narcissistic demand for attention.
As a reporter who covered the case, I'll never forget one of the first times I saw Echols. It was at a pretrial hearing in Marion, Ark., shortly after his arrest. "The three of us were shell-shocked,'' Echols writes of that time. That's partly true. Co-defendants Jason Baldwin, then 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17, appeared in shock. The two sat stiffly at the defense table as they waited for lawyers to return from the judge's chamber, heads bowed, neither daring to lift his eyes from the tabletop.
Not so Echols. He had swiveled his chair to face the courtroom audience. With a smirk on his face and a hollow stare, he studied the attendees one by one, nodding to some he recognized, all the while resting his head in his hand with two raised fingers pressed to his temple — body language that screamed, "I'm in charge here.''
I thought then we'd see an insanity plea. That never came. But plenty of other revelations did.
Echols received three psychiatric hospitalizations in the year before the murders. He contends now these amounted to wrongful commitments. He blames Jerry Driver, a Crittenden County juvenile officer described by Echols as "a bloated, corpulent man with beady little rat's eyes'' who spearheaded a controversial investigation into "teen satanism." Many of Driver's ideas were kooky, and facts suggest he sharply influenced the murder prosecution of Echols.
Yet records show at least two of the hospitalizations followed violent outbursts by Echols, who reportedly threatened to cut his mother's throat, eat his father and kill his ex-girlfriend's parents.
Echols writes of one incident preceding his first hospitalization, in May 1992, reporting it as the "only act of violence'' he committed in his life. It involved a 1992 fight for a girl's affections at Marion High School before he flunked out. "I regretted it almost as soon as it was over,'' he writes, relating how he'd jumped a rival and left scratches on his face "trying to hang on'' as others pulled them apart.
Witnesses gave a far different account. Interviewed by police, the rival said Echols threatened to kill him and cut another "into pieces and bury him'' if he interceded. Echols attacked the youth from behind and tried to "rip his eyes out'' with long fingernails he'd filed to points, the report said. Echols denies that, yet clinician notes from Echols' mental health records say he reported multiple school suspensions for fighting, including one in which he claimed he "almost gouged out the victim's eyes.'' His mental health file, 500 pages thick, describes in another spot Echols' nails — "clean and filed to points."
Sorting out Echols' proclivity for mayhem — how much was real and how much was hype — remains difficult. He writes, accurately, that one teen told police Echols used supernatural powers to levitate him off the ground. Yet another, this one an alibi witness, described how he watched as Echols killed and disemboweled a dog.
Writing of the hysteria, Echols says his nemesis Driver wrongly claimed to have once seen him carrying a wooden "staff'' and he says news reports that such an instrument was found in his trailer are false. "In fact, it was a paint stick, the kind you use to stir a freshly opened gallon of paint,'' he wrote. No, it was a 3-foot, wooden club. I found it — a tree limb painted red — between the studs in an unfinished closet wall while canvassing West Memphis neighborhoods doing interviews after Echols' arrest. We took pictures before calling police. The crime lab found no link to the murders.
Despite the cacophony, this much is certain: Clinical records documenting Echols' mental health in the year before the murders describe a mind spinning out of control.
He talked of "conversations with demons,'' "thoughts of killing others and himself,'' witchcraft spells he cast to "steal energy'' and "influence'' others and of "a spirit (that) now is living with him'' — the spirit of a woman murdered by her husband. Clinicians seemed unsure what to make of him. Diagnosed as bipolar with long-running depression, Echols was alternately tagged with a provisional diagnosis of "psychotic disorder'' and an adolescent adjustment disorder. At times clinicians found him "friendly'' and non-aggressive. Other times sullen, angry and struggling with rage. Reports noted that Echols sees two classes of people — "sheep and wolves'' — and that when his white-hot temper went off there was one resolution, "to hurt someone.'' And this from his mother: She fears her "son may be crazy.''
During an outpatient visit to the East Arkansas Regional Mental Health Center in January 1993, Echols said he'd been drinking human blood since he was 10, often cutting or biting a willing partner and sucking to obtain "power and strength." In a now-famous line from the report read during the sentencing phase at his trial, Echols told a counselor he drinks blood because "it makes me feel like a god.'' There is at least one official report of such an incident from the Juvenile Detention Center in Jonesboro, Ark. While in custody there in 1992, the report says, Echols "grabbed the arm'' of a youth who was bleeding and "began to suck the blood.'' Asked why he did it, "He stated, 'I don't know.' ''
Mental health reports say Echols desired "to be all powerful'' and in "total control'' to escape his crushing depression. "I know I'm going to influence the world,'' Echols told a counselor four months before the murders. "People will remember me.''
Echols' shaky mental state and his brash claims put him on a collision course with prosecutors after the boys' bodies were found submerged in a creek in a woods along Interstate 40. In a case with a remarkable lack of physical evidence — prosecutors said water washed away blood, fingerprints and other items typically found at a murder scene — the spectacle of Echols filled a fantastic void.
Part of that, as Echols claims, is attributable to Driver. Within hours of the discovery of the bodies, the juvenile officer gave police the names of Echols and five or six other teens said to be dabbling in the occult. Police quickly interviewed the others — several with similarly ''weird'' hobbies that included spells and Wiccan rituals — and cleared them. They conducted two field interviews of Echols. Then, on May 10, four days after the bodies were found, police called him to the station for an all-out interrogation.
The encounter is critical to the entire case.
"They shoved me into walls, spit at me, and never let up for a moment,'' Echols writes in "Life After Death." He made no such accusations at trial. Police did question Echols over some 10 hours that day. There is disputed evidence that they continued questioning him after he asked for a lawyer. Records show they covered a lot of ground, yet a handful of statements police attributed to Echols are key in understanding why they became so focused on him: Whoever did this did it as a "thrill kill''; "the killer probably wanted to hear the screaming''; the best part of the Bible is Revelations because of descriptions of "suffering done by people at the hands of the devil''; and "the younger the victim … the more power the person would have gotten from the sacrifice.''
None of the interview was recorded. Critics contend police asked leading questions and demonstrated extreme prejudice that extended even to the case number assigned to the investigation, 93-05-666. Then too, the statements police attributed to Echols are consistent with the sorts of things he'd been telling mental health professionals in confidence over the previous 12 months, before the drumbeat of hysteria started. These conflicting elements may never be resolved. But their retelling helps in understanding nuances whitewashed by Echols and his supporters.
Despite his current characterizations of being terrorized by police, Echols remained free another 24 days while police investigated him and a variety of other suspects. During that period, Echols publicly bragged at a softball game that he committed the murders. But it wasn't until police stumbled on Jessie Misskelley — a supposed eyewitness who put Echols at the scene of the murders in what many now view as a false confession — that the West Memphis Three were arrested.
Looking back, Echols' aunt, Patricia Liggett, wonders if her nephew wasn't simply baiting police in a twisted bid for ego gratification. "He was playing a game. And the game backfired,'' she said. "It was a stupid game.''
I first met Liggett back in 1993 before Echols' trial. She told me in confidence then she believed he committed the murders. She wasn't alone. Several people close to Echols thought he'd done it, or at least might be capable of it. Though supporters now characterize the case as a slam-dunk miscarriage of justice, for years there seemed to be reasonable arguments for either side. Yes, the trials were unsatisfactory, arguably even a travesty. Over time, witnesses have recanted testimony and maneuvers by the prosecution are under wide attack. But it wasn't until 2007 — with new DNA technology unavailable in 1993 and new forensic interpretations of the victims' wounds — that the whole case turned on its side.
Liggett had a front-row seat to the developments. She checked Echols out of the mental hospital in the fall of 1992 and took temporary guardianship of him. She says that after his conviction she contributed to his defense investigations because "I wanted to know in my heart of hearts'' if he did it. She now believes he's innocent. But, she says, she remains troubled by things Echols told her following his last hospitalization.
"He said, 'What I want more than anything else is to be famous,' '' she said. "That always stuck with me.''
One possible explanation for Echols' behavior then might involve his medication. Echols' attorneys said as much in an appeal in 2001 when they argued he was mentally incompetent during his 1994 trial. Relying on an evaluation by Berkeley psychiatrist George Woods, they contended antidepressants heightened Echols' manic episodes which, coupled with the stress of jail and a public trial, created a "psychotic euphoria'' resulting in courtroom hallucinations and a belief that "deities'' were helping him transform in body and spirit "into a superior entity.''
If Echols had lost touch with reality and his medicine played a role, it provides yet another cautionary tale in this odd case so seemingly rife with exhortations. How should authorities handle a mentally ill suspect? Are things he says evidence of a crime — or insanity? Still, it is hard to reconcile the Damien Echols the Mid-South saw in 1993 with the professorial, Zen Buddhist image he projects today in nationally broadcast interviews — soft-spoken, articulate, introspective, reasonable. Spectators got a glimpse of that Damien during his astonishing testimony as a 19-year-old at his 1994 trial. Cool, poised, articulate, he verbally jousted with prosecutors and assertively maintained his innocence. Was he able to just turn his illness off and on? Was he simply playing games? And though many in the Mid-South still think he's guilty, if he is innocent, would police have been able to find the real killer if they hadn't been so drawn into the Damien distraction?
When I conducted one of the first death row interviews with Echols in 1995, I noted that he seemed to enjoy the attention. Was it true, I asked. He grinned.
"Yes,'' he nodded. That always struck me as peculiar. Here was a man on death row, awaiting execution, and one of his prevailing thoughts was that he likes the attention?
Echols told me something else equally disturbing. He claimed he'd been repeatedly raped — as many as 40 times — by the man in the next cell, Mark Edward Gardner, who has since been executed. Echols made similar allegations in letters he mailed to various public officials. Prison officials investigated his claims and found them meritless. Echols doesn't mention any of this in "Life After Death," which includes several beautifully written chapters on the cruelty and depravity in prison. Those chapters make a number of other accusations, though, including that Echols was once choked by the warden, beaten until he "pissed blood'' and repeatedly kept in isolation, where temperatures would reach 120 degrees. In addition, he also told the Jonesboro Sun two years ago that he was repeatedly raped by guards.
"His claims are absolute nonsense, and he knows it,'' Dina Tyler, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Correction, said in an e-mail. Echols was on punitive status just once — for 16 days in September 1994, Tyler said. While there is only a fan system in isolation and no air conditioning, the average high temperature that month was 84 degrees. "So I feel certain that it did not reach 120 where Echols was housed,'' she said.
"... I think he's making up things to sell more copies of his book. It's a shame, too. Because his story is probably compelling enough without adding embellishments that are so obviously false,'' she said.
So, what are we to make of Echols?If he is indeed innocent, as evidence now suggests, Arkansas authorities need to toss out last year's Alford plea and pay Echols and his co-defendants the millions they deserve. That said, however, it is hard to understand him. For whatever reasons, he diverted valuable attention that might have resolved the murders of three little boys years ago. And for all his newfound articulation, he fails to answer the most critical of questions:
Who is he?