Salem has made the most of its infamous connection to the 17th-century witch trials, with reenactments, witchcraft museums, Halloween parades, and year-round spooky events. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Damien Echols, a man who spent 18 years on death row for a crime many people now believe he didn’t commit, has found refuge in this North Shore town.
The 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., along with the prosecution and legal battle that followed, captivated the nation and earned Echols and the two men convicted with him the moniker of the West Memphis 3. As questions about their guilt mounted, celebrity supporters, including “Lord of the Rings” filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Johnny Depp clamored for justice, and eventually it came with the trio’s release in 2011 under an obscure provision.
That journey from crime to conviction to release is chronicled in a new documentary that opened here Friday, “West of Memphis.”
“It isn’t fun for me to talk over and over about the worst thing in my life,” says Echols, 38, who moved to Salem with his wife, Lorri Davis, last September, barely a year after his release from Arkansas’ Varner Supermax prison. “You don’t even get a chance to heal because you are constantly ripping wounds back open. I look forward to not talking about it.”
He hopes to be exonerated one day — the murder conviction remains on his record. As for why he settled in Salem, Echols says that’s easy.
“The only two places I’d want to live were Salem and New York City,” he says. “Due to its history, Salem’s like a mecca for people in any form of alternative spirituality.”
Echols, who sports tattooed arms, long dark hair, and a soft-spoken intensity, says he hopes to open a meditation center in Salem and maybe a tattoo parlor. His dark eyes are often hidden behind sunglasses he wears due to damage from light deprivation after 10 years in solitary confinement.
“I learned to meditate in prison,” he says. “There were times when I was so sick or in so much pain that I didn’t think I’d make it through the night. I had to learn reiki and qigong to preserve my health and keep me going.”
When he was 18, Echols was sentenced to execution for the murders of Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, despite a lack of DNA and forensic evidence. Sentenced to life imprisonment were Echols’ friends Jason Baldwin, 16, and the mentally impaired Jessie Misskelley Jr., 17, who recanted his confession to police. Prosecutors contended that the teens, led by Echols, killed the boys as part of a satanic ritual, citing as evidence Echols’ penchant for wearing black and listening to heavy metal music.
He says that he survived nearly two decades on death row by writing and by developing mind and body techniques for dealing with rage and bitterness. “For the first two or three years when I was in prison, I was pissed off all the time about everything. From the moment my eyes opened in the morning it was like, ‘I should not be here. These people have no right to do this to me.’ ”
The West Memphis 3 became a cause celebre. But despite public pressure, the state of Arkansas refused to grant a new trial but instead released the West Memphis 3 under an obscure provision called an Alford plea. This allowed them to go free if they agreed not to sue the state of Arkansas for financial damages. But it did not overturn the guilty verdicts.
Echols considered fighting for full exoneration, but accepted the bargain. “If I didn’t take that deal, I was never going to see the outside world.”
One might think that Echols and Davis, who married in a Buddhist ceremony in the prison visiting room in 1999, would simply want to live quietly in Salem and not revisit the past. But the couple are balancing a desire to settle down and enjoy time together with their quest for justice.
To that end, Echols and Davis co-produced the documentary with Jackson and Walsh, with the hope of one day overturning the guilty verdict that remains on Echols’ record and spurring prosecutors to find and charge the actual killer.
“We filed all the new evidence in front of the same judge who had sentenced me to death. He refused to hear it. Case closed. Peter [Jackson] said, ‘If we can’t be heard in a court, let’s take it public and make a film,’ ” Echols recalls.
The producers hired director Amy Berg on the strength of her Oscar-nominated documentary “Deliver Us from Evil,” about the Reverend Oliver O’Grady, a Catholic priest who was relocated to various parishes around the country during the 1970s in an attempt to cover up his abuse of dozens of children.
“We were blown away by ‘Deliver Us from Evil’ and never considered anyone else after seeing it,” Davis says.
Berg began her own research. “I had to find my own way to believing they were innocent before I could take the job,” she says.
Echols and his supporters already understood the power of a documentary. HBO’s “Paradise Lost” trilogy first focused public attention on the case. But that was not an investigative documentary. “West of Memphis” attempts to discredit much of the expert testimony in the trial and presents new witnesses and information that casts suspicion on Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.
“I give all the credit in the world to [‘Paradise Lost’] for bringing the story into the world,” says Lorri Davis, 50. That trilogy is also what brought Davis and Echols together.
Davis was working as a landscape architect in Manhattan when she became intrigued by the case after seeing “Paradise Lost.” She started corresponding with Echols in 1996; his letters to her, adorned with his own intricate drawings, revealed a sensitive, spiritually and intellectually curious young man. Eventually Davis quit her job and moved to Little Rock, Ark., so she could visit regularly. In the film, Echols describes the pain of an emotional connection that could not — and might never — be fully realized.
As part of their nationwide promotion of the film, Echols and Davis participated in discussions following two sold-out screenings of “West of Memphis” at the recent Salem Film Fest. The crowd was supportive, treating the couple like neighbors and friends (“You two are adorable!” said one man during their Q&A). They hung out waiting for the screening to end and grabbed dinner at Gulu-Gulu Cafe.
But a message posted on the festival website by a man claiming to be Todd Moore, father of victim Michael Moore, is a reminder of the past, even as admirers ask to take his picture with their cellphones. “How shameful for anyone to support this monster that brutally murdered my son and his friends,” the message says.
Echols dismisses it.
“I spent nearly two decades in a building with murderers and rapists. I’m not concerned with what someone says on the Internet,” he says.
“The most suspicious thing I found out about Damien is that he doesn’t think gummy bears are a proper topping for ice cream,” says Joe Cultrera, the Salem Film Festival founder and director. “He’s a sweet guy with a bunch of tattoos.”
Echols has left most of the past in Arkansas behind except for an ongoing friendship with Baldwin. “Jason and I talk every few days. He’s in Seattle now, going to school and hoping to get a law degree. But he won’t be able to practice until he’s exonerated.”
Echols says he knows that exoneration for Baldwin, for Misskelley, or for himself, is unlikely.
“I’m not naïve to think it’s going to happen just because of this movie,” he says. “It’s going to be a long, hard, bitter fight.”