(Lenny Gilmore / RedEye )
Details of the West Memphis 3 investigation can only be described as ridiculous.
“They had one guy say that I looked at him and made him levitate. And this is in police records,” says Damien Echols, who in 2011 was freed from prison after 18 years on Death Row. “To me it’s not the misinformation that’s so unbelievable, it’s the fact that people took it seriously … It was all made-up crap.”
As chronicled in the “Paradise Lost” documentary series and the new doc “West of Memphis” (opening Friday), Arkansas teenagers Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr. were tried and convicted of murdering three children in 1993 despite a lack of physical evidence against them. Baldwin and Misskelley were both sentenced to life in prison but, like Echols, were released in late 2011 after years of witnesses’ recanted testimony, widespread protests (by celebs including Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, among others) and, as shown in “West of Memphis,” new forensic findings that not only unraveled the already shoddy case against them, but pointed blame at a new suspect.
At the Peninsula Hotel, the 38-year-old Echols—who stares out the window and asks, “What is Neiman Marcus?”—talked about when the unthinkable becomes normal, surviving in prison and, despite his remarkable sense of calm, what aspect of pop culture gets on his nerves anyway.
I’ve sat here across from Ben Affleck, Will Ferrell; these are people coming from a much different place than you are. Does it feel surreal to do a press tour like this?
It does. I’ve spent not only 18 years in prison but almost the last 10 of it was in solitary confinement—so almost no human interaction whatsoever. So whenever I do get out, to say it’s overwhelming doesn’t even come close to articulating what it’s like. For the first two to three months I was in such a deep state of shock and trauma from that alone that I couldn’t take anything in. I needed someone with me all the time to help me with just about everything.
What’s an example of that?
I couldn’t do things. Say I had a doctor’s appointment and had to find my way to a doctor’s office. I couldn’t go by myself because I had been in a box for almost 20 years. I had never had to navigate from point A to point B during that time so I would need someone with me to get me there. Things out here that people panic over I would not think anything of it. But the things out here that people just take for granted would make me panic. We lived in New York for a year. I’m on the subway, a crazy person freaks out and goes nuts on the subway and everybody else is panicking and me I’m like, “I’ve seen this everyday for almost 20 years.” Whereas I go to the bank and I’m standing in line trying to figure out how to fill out paperwork, that’s what sends me into a tailspin. I’m not used to stuff like that.
Would you ever get involved if something like that was happening? If everyone else is freaking out and someone’s going wild on the train, would you try to diffuse the situation?
I think a lot of times in situations like that you can’t talk to ‘em. A friend of mine was on the subway, it was this really weird situation where this guy is touching this woman on the subway and she doesn’t know who he is. She keeps saying, “Stop, stop touching me, leave me alone,” and everybody on the subway is just looking down. They don’t want to get involved, they don’t want to say anything about it. So the next stop when the door opens, my friend stands up and shoves the guy off the train, pushes him out the door and [it closes] real quick. People on the train started clapping, and he turned around, he was like, “What are you clapping at? Why didn’t somebody here do something about it?” Stuff like that. Yeah, I would like to think if anybody was in any kind of real danger or anything like that I would like to think that I would something to try to help ‘em because I would want somebody to do the same thing for me.