Damien Echols never planned to come back to Arkansas. “These days, I try to look forward,” he wrote in his 2012 memoir, Life After Death. “I’m tired of looking back.” After spending half his life on Arkansas’s death row – he was finally released in 2011 – Echols was “sick to death” of his claim to fame as one of the West Memphis Three. “It’s a title I’d prefer never to hear again,” he wrote. “It does nothing but remind me of hell.”
Echols was wrongfully accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were discovered in the woods in rural Arkansas in 1993. It was the tail end of a bizarre era in American criminal justice, a wave of public hysteria known as the satanic ritual abuse panic, in which numerous people were wrongly sent to prison for lurid — and in some cases nonexistent — crimes against children. Echols, who grew up as a misfit in his small Arkansas town, was accused of being a member of a satanic cult, based on such proof as the fact that he listened to heavy metal, along with the coerced confession of one of his teenage co-defendents, who was mentally disabled. The case inspired multiple documentaries, which transformed Echols’s plight into a cause célèbre. He was grateful for the support, but even on death row the attention eventually took a toll. “My entire life had been exposed for anyone and everyone to examine,” he wrote. “Every day I received letters from people who did nothing but ask the most intimate aspects of my life.” There was one letter, though, that disarmed Echols, from a woman who “apologized for invading my privacy by seeking me out.” That woman, Lorri Davis, later became his wife.
Today Echols lives in New York City, a place that gives him the gift of anonymity. But on Friday, April 14, Echols stood on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol, with Lorri by his side. It was the first time that Echols had returned to the state where he was supposed to be executed, a place that filled him with fear. But he felt he had no choice: After nearly 12 years without an execution in the state, in late February Gov. Asa Hutchinson had signed death warrants for eight men, who were to die in pairs on four separate nights before the state’s supply of a key drug it planned to use as part of its lethal injection cocktail passed its expiration date. These were men Echols had lived with for almost 20 years. When the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty invited him to speak at a rally at the Capitol, planned for Good Friday, he struggled. “My first thought was ‘I can’t. I can’t do this,’” he told reporters. But he knew that if he did nothing, “I would have to live the rest of my life knowing that I didn’t raise a hand to help these people.”