DPAC was reduced to standing room only as students and non-students alike filed in to hear the dark and twisted story of the infamous murder trial known as the “West Memphis Three,” as told by the falsely accused “ring leader” and memoir author Damien Echols on Wednesday. Echols was joined on stage by his wife Laurie Davis, who played a role in helping Echols obtain his freedom.
Interim President Robert Martin introduced the second of three events called the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series. The theme of this school year’s Distinguished Lecture Series is “Live to the Truth,” which couldn’t be any more accurate when it comes to Echols’ story.
Echols was one of the “West Memphis Three” who were falsely convicted of killing three 8-year-old Boy Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. These murders were reported to be a “satanic human sacrifice,” and, with a headline like that, it was bound to attract a media parade.
“In the end, the media is what sent me to prison,” Echols said, “and it’s also a huge part of what got me out.”
The case against the teens was built on inconclusive evidence, a corrupt investigation and a forced confession from one of the boys that Echols said was “a mentally handicapped kid in our neighborhood.
“They had tortured a confession out of him,” he said. “He couldn’t get any of the details right, of course, because he wasn’t actually at the crime scene. But they got him to say yes, which was all that mattered.”
The other two boys, Jason Baldwin and Jesse MissKelley Jr., were sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole, while Echols received the penalty of death by lethal injection. He spent 18 years on death row before being released in 2011 in an agreement with the state of Arkansas known as an Alford plea.
“What a lot of people don’t know is that, at that time in the United States in 1993, in law enforcement there was a phenomenon known as the Satanic Panic going around,” said Davis. “The West Memphis police department, shortly before the murders, had attended a conference learning about how to identify Satanists in their community.”
The stereotypes that were taught to the officers were used against Echols in court.
Davis said, “Their love of heavy metal music, wearing black clothing and Stephen King were used as evidence against them.”
“Thankfully, it also caught the attention of HBO, who sent a documentary film crew from New York,” she said.
HBO was given the right to full coverage of the trial, and the documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” was released in 1996. Davis did not know Echols personally, but she was horrified by the film, and she “felt a kinship with Damien.” She decided that she wanted to do something to help him.
“To make a long story short, four years later I found myself living in Arkansas, married to Damien and realizing I had to start the daunting task of putting together a legal team. I had no idea what I was doing,” she said.
Echols’ legal team cycled through a dozen different lawyers over the course of the 18-year period. As Davis began the complex task of devising a legal team, “Paradise Lost” was picking up major steam. Celebrities like Eddy Vedder, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins and Natalie Maines started to lend their resources and efforts to the cause.
Things were moving along slowly but surely in the outside world, but inside the prison walls, Damien’s life hung in the balance every day.
“When I first arrived on death row, the guards decided they were going to welcome me to the neighborhood,” Echols said. “They took me to a part of the prison they called ‘the hole.’ It’s very dark, filthy, rat infested. During the summer in Arkansas it can get up to 120 and 140 degrees in there. And for the next 18 days they beat the living hell out of me.”
Echols endured severe beatings almost regularly in his experience on death row.
“At one point,” he said, “they beat me so severely that I started to piss blood. I even now have nightmares about that.”
Echols described adjusting back to society after his release as terrifying.
“When I got out of prison in 2011, I had not seen a computer since 1986,” he said.
Things like credit card machines that were attached to cash registers at the grocery store would send Echols “into panic mode.
“I had never seen anything like that before,” he said. “To me that was extremely advanced technology.”
Davis concluded the presentation with a message of hope for everyone.
“I know this is a very dark, disturbing and horrible story,” she said, “and I just want to tell you all that no matter what you’re going through, I just hope you can find the strength and know that you can get through anything, because we did, and I know it’s possible.”
Event organizer and psychology Professor Daisy Ball said, “Yes, this is just one case, but this case is illustrative of a greater social problem that I’m trying to draw attention to.”
Junior criminology major Sean Kelly said, “Damien Echols did us all a favor by giving this presentation. His honesty with the world is a refreshing attitude.”
Junior psychology major Craig Boland said, “I think [the presentation] will benefit everyone who saw it because of what Davis said at the end about there being light at the end of every tunnel. I think that can be applied to any situation. I’ve already used his story to get me through some stuff of my own.”