Damien Echols‘ eyesight is becoming increasingly dim. He is experiencing a lot of pain, especially in his teeth, because living on concrete without sunlight or adequate nutrition can ravage a body over the course of 15 years.
How’s that for an update?
Of all the documentaries I’ve come to love, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills — the story of how Echols ended up in a maximum security prison in Arkansas, is the one that most demands being a part of my series, “What Ever Happened to the Subject?” Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s 1996 film tells the incredibly tragic and mind-bending story of the gruesome murder of three young boys in Arkansas in 1993, and the ensuing trial and conviction of three teen misfits for the crime. What’s so compelling about the film is that it becomes increasingly clear to the audience that the three heavy-metal-listening teens on trial — Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — are innocent of everything — except for being different from their peers.
The power to tell a truth — whether it’s revolutionary, unpopular or simply uncool — is what makes documentary such a vital medium. But, incredibly, inexplicably, maddeningly, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are still in prison 14 years after Paradise Lost made its irrefutable case. And this is also despite Berlinger and Sinofsky’s 2000 follow-up film, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, made the facts even more clear, and despite a wave of support from activists and celebrities (including Johnny Depp) galvanized by the documentaries.
Of course, representing the truth in a documentary is not the same as proving it in a court of law, and that brings us to today: Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are each awaiting different opportunities to have their cases reviewed. Echols’ case is the most pressing because he’s on death row (Misskelley and Baldwin are serving life). He is now waiting until October for his appeal for a new trial to be heard by the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Echols was 18 when he was arrested. He is now in his 30s. And, get this — he’s now married. Lorri Davis saw Paradise Lost at MOMA’s New Directors festival in 1996 and was so deeply moved by it, she began writing to Echols. Eventually, she began talking with him on the phone, and then moved near his prison, to Little Rock, Arkansas.
“I felt a kinship with Damien,” Davis, a landscape architect, told me over the phone. “Something about him resonated, his stubbornness, his intelligence.”
They got married in 1999. Davis, who is unequivocal about Echol’s innocence, says that she’s convinced that he will be freed within two years. They talk every day and she is allowed to visit him once a week.
Echols is a very spiritual person, Davis says. “He is using his prison cell like a monastery,” she adds. “He spends every hour studying or meditating or trying to keep himself strong and focused.” After spending many years studying everything he could — from the Peloponnesian wars to Henry James — he’s now dedicated himself to spiritual work. What he wants to do is be, “of service.” Anger is not an option.
For anyone that retains a kernel of doubt about Echols’ innocence — and I have to say I still count myself in that category — Davis, and Lonnie Soury, a consultant enlisted by Davis to fight for Echols’ release, remind us of the fallibility of false confessions. If you recall, the only thing — the only thing — that connected those three teens to the murder was Misskelley’s confession. Davis directed me to the Innocence Project website, where you can find facts about convicted felons whose cases have been overturned by DNA evidence. I noticed that 19 of 250 DNA exonerees pled guilty to crimes they did not commit. That made quite an impression on me: false confessions really do happen. Without Misskelley’s confession, which he later retracted, there would be no case.
If Echols wants to be of service, I’d say he is already doing that for anyone who reads his letters from prison. You can find them at Freewestmemphis3.org. If a guy has to create mind games for himself — such as only allowing himself to eat peppermint during a two-month period in the winter — just to keep sane, then, what does it say to any of us about our countless, relatively meaningless, problems? It’s a wake up call.
Not surprisingly, Echols is deeply appreciative of the work done by Berlinger and Sinofsky, who also serve as conduits to people who have supported Echols’ defense fund. “Without the documentary, who knows where he’d be right now?” Davis asks.
It’s an interesting question. One I’ll save for another post another day. But, for now, I hope to put Echols in a “What is Going to Happen to the Subject?” series. Looking toward that future, we’re all going to have to wait for the third installment of Paradise Lost, which, I am happy to report, Berlinger and Sinofsky are working on. Let’s hope this one has a happy ending.