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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Students talk to released inmate Damien Echols

Published: February 8, 2013
Section: Featured, News

Forming part of ’Deis Impact week, Brandeis seniors, working on the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, spoke with released inmate, Damien Echols, his wife, his defense team advisor and a correspondent for CBS’s 48 Hours at Rapaporte Treasure Hall Tuesday evening.

After a screening of the trailer of “West of Memphis,” a recently-released documentary directed by Amy Berg and video clips from CBS correspondent Erin Moriarty’s interviews of Echols, Brandeis seniors, Madeleine Ziff, Keith Barry and Avi Snyder formed an interview panel to ask the participants questions regarding Echols’ story.

It started in 1993, when three young boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Within a climate of fear and holding what Damien calls an “outsider status” in the small conservative community, he along with Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were accused for the murders of these boys. The culmination of no investigation, “alleged” confessions, faulty witnesses and weak representation, West Memphis Three’s “ringleader,” Echols, was sentenced to be executed. The case slid into a pile of wrongful conviction cases.

“It is virtually impossible to get an innocent person out of prison,” said Lonnie Soury, Echols’ defense team advisor, to the audience of more than 200 in Rapaporte Treasure Hall. Students and faculty sat or stood almost anywhere for the entirety of the two-hour event.

But after West Virginia native and landscape architect, Lorri Davis, saw the New York film screening of the documentary “Paradise Lost” in 1996, she “just knew that something had gone wrong in that courtroom,” she said. She wrote Damien Echols a letter. Damien wrote her back. Few letters soon became several. Convinced of his innocence, she began working on his case in 1998. And one conversation led to another until they were married in 1999.

Davis, nicknamed the Chief Executive Officer of Free West Memphis, joined forces with Lonnie Soury to educate the public about the case. Celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedde, and Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, who in one way or another identified with the West Memphis Three, came to support them, and attracted much needed media attention on the West Memphis Three’s behalf.

“I literally would be dead without it,” Echols said. Two other supporters are Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, both of whom helped co-produce his new documentary, “West of Memphis.”

Echols insisted that this celebrity support was not really about the case. In the end, they were family to him. Echols shared an anecdote with the audience about Peter Jackson. Jackson, who wanted to make up for 18 years of life lost, took Echols paragliding and on a helicopter ride into an active volcano. “He is honestly the smartest person I’ve ever come across in my life, but he’s also crazy,” Echols said with a chuckle.

One reporter who was willing to cover Echols’ story, was Erin Moriarty of CBS’s 48 Hours. Journalists, in general, do a good enough job including all pieces of evidence in legal cases, explained Moriarty. “That’s also my job as a reporter.” But unlike Davis and Soury, Moriarty has to walk the fine line of objectivity in reporting legal cases such as these. “I have to remind myself I’m not an innocence project. I’m a reporter,” she said to a small group of Schuster students before the event.

Despite an optimistic forecast for Echols in rallying support, attracting positive press attention and gathering overwhelming evidence of his innocence, his health was in jeopardy. Of his 18 years on death row, he spent the last 10 in solitary confinement. He was losing his eyesight, his weight and developed consistent pain. It came down to a deal: The Alford Plea. If the defendants admit there is sufficient evidence to find them guilty as well as agree to not sue the State, they can be released from prison. “Either you die in prison or you take it and walk out,” said Echols to why they agreed to take the plea. Soury added that the prosecution case had intended to and could feasibly reprosecute, dragging the case on for years, if Echols had refused to sign the Alford Plea.

“Damien Echols’ case highlights the serious flaws in our criminal justice system—especially those cases in which police and prosecutors have not thoroughly investigated the cases,” Florence Graves, Founding Director of the Schuster Institute said. “We simply don’t know how many innocent people may have been executed for crimes they did not commit,” Florence Graves, Founding Director of the Schuster Institute said.

The Brandeis Community was silent throughout the question and answer series, safe for a few rounds of applause to insightful responses from the participants. One such response to an audience member’s question of what advice he could offer the Brandeis community was this: “It may sound simple, but focus on what you want and not on what you don’t want … You go into the direction you focus your attention in,” Echols said. Echols and Davis, who spoke on a daily basis, practiced this method by not talking about the perpetual element of execution in the near future.

In an attempt to focus his attention on other things, Echols also painted and practiced the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Buddhism. He explained that he would spend five to seven hours a day in meditation and eventually received ordination.

Another curious element of Echols’ case, is Echols and Davis’ love story that took place while he was on death row. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone,” said Davis, in response to Snyder’s question on their marriage’s challenges. After the laughter subsided, she explained that it was very stressful, but never regretted her decision. It worked because “we created a world together while I was in there,” Damien added.

But why was the judiciary so unwilling to reopen the investigation? “Ambition,” Echols said.  Echols and Soury said that the elected officials involved did not want to admit the possibility of a wrongful conviction for fear of the effect it would have on their political careers.

“The Appellate System is broken. It needs to be changed,” said Moriarty, who also holds a legal degree. She adds that in her experience, wrongful conviction cases are more often the sum of human error: “not [having] enough time, overwork, young lawyers with not enough experience, who don’t necessarily believe in their clients.” It’s also a question of “complete laziness” on the side of reporters who are fed one side of the story by the prosecution, said Soury.

In response to Brandeis students’ question to Echols if the prison system is obsolete, Echols pointed out that the question is more that of rehabilitation. He found that people in prison were “either crazy or driven crazy,” but for those to be released from prison, rehabilitation is necessary. “It’s not the best idea to drive them crazy before bringing them back in the room,” said Echols.

Brandeis students and faculty were not the only attendees at the event. Seniors at Waltham High School, Katie Nicoloro, Maria Millan and Ava Rosen, accompanied by their junior year English teacher, Jeanette Amiano, stood eagerly in the book-signing line to have their junior research paper autographed, of which the subject was the West Memphis Three. Amiano and her students had developed an “emotional attachment” to the case and had long anticipated this event, said Amiano.

“I love this. What I don’t like is talking to the mass press because they don’t care. But the people who came out here tonight do care,” Echols said as he signed books after the event.

“We think it went exceptionally well. We were so pleased with the turn out and really pleased that the audience was ready and willing to engage with Damien and the others in the panel during the Q & A session. I really hope that it made people in the audience want to know more about this really huge issue of wrongful convictions, why and how they happen,” Elizabeth Macedo Assistant Director at the Schuster Institute said.

She explained the organization of the event was mainly a group effort, although she and Anne Driscoll were heavily involved in the logistics and the organization of the participants, respectively. Driscoll, who knew Moriarty from the Investigative Reporters and Editors National Conference in June of last year, also contacted Soury to get in touch with Echols and Davis. “They were all so gracious,” and “sort of all the stars aligned … It all came together,” Driscoll said.

One of members of the interview panel, Keith Barry, has worked at the Schuster Institute for more than a year exclusively on the Innocence Project. His experience interacting directly with Echols, made a strong impact on him. “I think the best benefit is to concretely see why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he said.

Maddie Ziff, at Schuster for almost three years, found it to be “an honor and an incredible experience” to have participated in the interview panel, but she continues to wonder about the nature of circumstance in wrongful conviction cases. “What about Damien made his case gather so much attention while so many others have sat—and will continue to sit—in prison waiting for their turn for justice?” she questioned.

Cosponsors of the event included the Department of Sociology, the Journalism Program, the Legal Studies Program, the Office of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Office of the Dean of Student Life, the Office of the Provost, the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies Program, the Social Justice Social Policy Program and the Women’s Studies Research Center.