Published August 20, 2011
MEMPHIS, Tennessee – Most prison inmates count down the weeks or months to freedom.
For Damien Echols, who spent half his life on death row, it came almost out of the blue. His nearly two-decades-long fight for exoneration in the gruesome murders of three Cub Scouts produced an unexpected deal. He and two others, known collectively as the West Memphis Three, pleaded guilty Friday to lesser charges in exchange for sentences of the 18 years they'd already served.
And just like that, Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were freed, if not cleared. That fight continues, but right now, Echols, who once came within three weeks of execution, is relearning to live outside prison.
"I was up all morning and most of the night trying to figure out how to use those iPhone things," he said Saturday in the lobby of a posh Memphis hotel, just across the river from West Memphis, Arkansas, where the Scouts' bodies were found in 1993. "One minute I'm looking at something about Judge (David) Laser. The next minute, it's on, like, some hardcore porn site."
Echols became the star the West Memphis Three as the only one sentenced to death. He spent Friday night on the hotel rooftop with supporters, including Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines, who both whipped out guitars. Liquor flowed. Hugs were plentiful, especially for a man who hasn't had much physical contact for 18 years.
On Saturday morning, Echols, 36, stopped to hug Capi Peck, a Little Rock restaurateur and friend, in the lobby. He had a bottle of Pellegrino water in one hand and a pair of high heels in the other.
"Lorri's," he explained, gesturing to his wife of 11 years, Lorri Davis, who trailed behind him.
Instead of prison whites, he wore a dark suit that made his skin look almost translucent after years without sunlight.
Before breakfast, he sniffed a glass of cranberry juice as a sommelier would a rare Bordeaux.
"It's like sensory overload," said Steven Drizin, legal director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's law school and a member of Echols' legal team. "When someone has been so deprived of this kind of experience ... it's almost experiencing it again for the first time."
Echols' freedom doesn't sit well with everyone. Some relatives of the three boys who died, Michael Moore, Steve Branch and Christopher Byers, remain convinced the West Memphis Three are guilty.
The 8-year-old boys were found naked and hogtied in May 1993. Two drowned in a drainage ditch. One bled to death.
Police had no leads until they received a tip that Echols had been seen covered in mud on the night of the boys' disappearance. The big break came when Misskelley unexpectedly confessed and implicated the other two, describing sodomy and other violence.
Misskelley, then 17, later recanted, and defense lawyers said he got several parts of the story wrong. An autopsy found there was no definite evidence of sexual assault. Misskelley also said the older boys abducted the Scouts in the morning, when they had actually been in school all day.
But the three were convicted. Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years, Baldwin got life without parole and Echols was slated to die.
Then a 1996 HBO documentary titled "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills" drew the attention of celebrities including Vedder and Maines. Joined by other stars, they helped fund a legal team that sought a new trial.
Last fall, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new hearing for the three, asking a judge to consider allegations of juror misconduct and whether new DNA science could aid the men or uphold the convictions. Then, suddenly, there was the plea deal.
It involved an unusual legal maneuver that allowed the men to maintain their claims of innocence. But with murder convictions still on their records, supporters say they've got to find whoever's responsible for the boys' deaths to clear the men's names.
That will likely involve more expensive DNA tests and private investigators.
"They're welcome to test and spend millions of dollars," prosecutor Scott Ellington said. "But I doubt that their efforts will come to fruition."
Peck, who co-founded a group that raised money and awareness for the West Memphis Three, disagreed and added that supporters have donated enough money to foot the bills.
"This is not over until the real killer or killers are incarcerated," she said.