The Damien Echols West Memphis Three Archive
Echols, Damien, and Lorri Davis. West Memphis Three Correspondence Archive. 1996–2010.
In 1993, at the age of eighteen, Damien Echols, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., was arrested for the murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. During the trial, the prosecution asserted that the three teenagers killed the children as part of a satanic ritual, basing their accusations on the co-defendents’ taste in rock music and Echols’ interest in Wicca. Misskelley confessed to the murders, and was tried separately, and all three were convicted: Baldwin to life imprisonment, Misskelley to life imprisonment plus two twenty-year sentences, and Echols, the alleged ringleader, to death.
Echols was incarcerated at an Arkansas Supermax unit on March 19, 1994, and two years later, HBO released a documentary on the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which raised significant questions about the trial, including the strong suggestion that Misskelley’s confession had been the result of strong-arming by the police. The film brought international attention to the case, generating controversy over the court’s convictions, and initiated a movement, “Free the West Memphis 3,” that comprised a number of celebrity supporters, including Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, Iggy Pop, Henry Rollins, Margaret Cho, Peter Jackson, and Eddie Vedder. Among those who saw the film was landscape architect Lorri Davis, who wrote to Echols in April 1996; the two soon developed a romantic relationship that resulted in their marriage on December 3, 1999.
As more scrutiny was focused on the convictions, and forensic tests showed that none of the DNA found at the crime scene matched that of Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley, the prosecution’s case faltered, and the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered that both the new evidence and possible juror misconduct be examined. However, instead of pursuing a new trial, Echols’ lawyers controversially proposed that the three prisoners enter into Alford pleas, a legal mechanism that permitted the defendants to plead guilty while still asserting their actual innocence. On August 19, 2011, the three were released on time served—at that point, 18 years and 78 days—and ten-year suspended sentences.
The archive primarily comprises Echols’ and Davis’ emotional twelve-year correspondence of nearly 4,000 letters, all reviewed by prison authorities, which record the couple’s struggle to not only maintain a long distance relationship, but Echols’ efforts to remain positive and sane when he could be executed at any moment. Included, too, is a remarkable 2008 letter from Victoria Hutcheson—a trial witness who had testified against Echols, but then recanted her statement in October 2004—apologizing to Echols for her role in his imprisonment. Also present are eleven of Echols’ prison diaries, which include his poetry, photographs, and draft excerpts for his memoir Life After Death, as well as unpublished autobiographical writings and poems written while he was still incarcerated.
A unique and important chronicle of justice, love, and recovery that also provides profound insight into regional politics, local prejudices, police practices, the court establishment, and the United States penal system, particularly its effect on prisoners both during their sentences and after their release.