With sunglasses, a black-leather jacket and boots, long messy hair and tattoos up and down his arms, Damien Echols looks like a rock star.
The sunglasses he wears protect his eyes after ten years of living in dimly-lit solitary confinement. The tattoos of Japanese characters represent the seven hours of meditation a day that he says kept him alive on death row.
Echols described his experience as an innocent man on death row in his speech, “Life After Death Row,” Wednesday night. About 250 people attended the event which was hosted by the Student Entertainment Board at the CUB Auditorium.
Echols was a member of the West Memphis Three, three men accused of murdering three eight-year-old boys in a satanic ritual as teenagers in 1993. 18 years later, after evidence that vindicated their innocence came to light they were released on an Alford Plea Bargain — accepting a guilty plea while still maintaining legal innocence — in 2011.
Echols said he woke up every day pissed, in prison for a crime which he did not commit. The emotion would eat him alive, he said.
“This story is filled with tragedy and a lot of pain,” said his wife, Lorri Davis.
All of Echols’ problems started when he was a kid, he said. He grew up in a state of poverty and took refuge in books and music with different worlds he could escape into.
However, satanic fever swept the nation and in the Bible belt of America, this behavior was viewed with a particular amount of suspicion at this point in time, he said.
Echols said the sensationalism was so strong that his Metallica T-shirts and Steven King novels were part of the evidence used against him.
“The prosecutor actually said these things were proof I didn’t have a soul and was guilty,” Echols said.
The first day he arrived at the prison the guards threw him a welcome party, he said. They carried him to a place they called “the hole” — a filthy, little, hot room, completely isolated from the rest of the prison.
For 18 days they beat him mercilessly.
“Even now I wake up with nightmares that I am pissing blood again,” Echols said.
Eventually the beatings stopped and he was removed from “the hole.” But the only reason they didn’t kill him, he said, was because they knew they were being watched.
Davis heard about Echol’s situation and began a correspondence. A few years later they married and Davis started hiring lawyers and building publicity.
She worked on his case for over 15 years, “It became a worldwide effort to free these three from prison,” she said.
Eventually celebrities, such as Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson — who recently produced “West Memphis Three” about the case — joined the movement to free Echols.
Echols said he cared nothing about their celebrity status as he wasted away in prison — all he wanted was freedom.
”I wasn’t thinking much of anything, just trying to survive,” he said. “Because at that point I was literally dying.”
DNA evidence eventually surfaced implicating the stepfather of one of the victims and the man who provided the stepfather’s alibi.
However, when brought to trial the judge threw out the evidence, saying it didn’t matter because the case was closed. He said he didn’t even want to hear it, Echols said
“These people were willing to kill someone if it meant they got reelected,” Echols said.
They were then free to move the case up to the Arkansas Supreme Court for review. The prosecution, knowing they would lose, then offered the deal.
“The deal wasn’t difficult to take,” he said. “I felt nothing, I was so tired, I hadn’t slept or ate, all I was focusing on was putting one foot in front of the other.”
Echols said after his imprisonment, he views the judicial system as corrupt and broken. Society needs to get over the idea of “us versus them” with prisoners, he said.
“When helping people reintegrate into society after jail, don’t think of it as helping a degenerate, think of it as helping yourself,” Echols said. “Because what do you want to come out of there? Do you want to just punish or rehabilitate?”
“(It’s) amazing that he is willing to even come talk about it, because I can’t imagine having to go through it over and over and over again,” said Alyson Mack, a senior criminal justice major who attended the event.
Echols said he hasn’t had an easy time reintegrating himself.
“I didn’t get used to being in prison in a single day and you don’t get used to being out of prison in a single day, he said. “I walked out of prison a free man - sort of.”