The Ultimate Deadline
Let’s say you’re a prisoner on Death Row at Arkansas’s super-maximum security prison, the Varner Unit, and you’d like to escape. For years now you’ve been living—if you can call it living—in solitary confinement in a filthy, airless, 9 by 12 cinderblock cell. There are no bars for you to look out, much less climb through, and all you can see through your sole window is a brick wall. And the window is really just a slit in one of the cinderblock walls, so even if you could break the bullet-proof Plexiglass, it’s too narrow for anyone to climb out. The meal slot in the solid steel door is even smaller, so forget about that route too. Your only chance would be to overpower your guards while they escort you to the visitation cell on the relatively rare occasion that a lawyer, reporter, or family member comes to see you. However, this is not easy to do when you’re handcuffed and shackled. But let’s say you somehow manage to do it. You would then have to pass through several locked doors, all of them wired with alarms, cross the wide-open prison yard, then scale three separate 15-foot-high fences, each of them topped with dense coils of concertina wire and the middle one charged with enough voltage to knock anyone who touches it to the ground. And you would have to do all of this without being spotted by any of the numerous guards who patrol the prison and man the watchtowers that overlook the prison yard.
Obviously, it’s virtually impossible to get out of this prison. Getting into it, on the other hand, is a breeze. Here’s all you have to do: wear black T-shirts, listen to Metallica, read Stephen King and Anne Rice, watch horror movies, read books about the Wiccan religion, know who Aleistair Crowley was, and befriend a mentally challenged boy with an IQ of 72 who will “confess,” after six hours of interrogation without a lawyer or other adult present, that he, you, and another friend murdered, sodomized, and sexually mutilated three eight-year-old boys. Oh, and there’s one other thing you’ll need to do: write poetry.
Fantastic as this may sound, what I’ve just described are the reasons why a then-teenager named Damien Echols was convicted for stabbing and beating three little boys to death in West Memphis, Arkansas, on May 5, 1993, and they are the reasons why he remains on Death Row now, more than fourteen years later. Despite the fact that this was an extremely bloody, hands-on murder, and despite the fact that the killings took place on a muddy creek bank, investigators were unable to find any physical evidence linking Damien or his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley to the crime scene—not a single hair, fingerprint, footprint, or the slightest trace of DNA evidence. (Recent DNA tests have linked the stepfather of one of the murdered boys to the scene, however; one of his hairs was found knotted into one of the shoestrings the murderer used to tie the boys’ wrists and ankles.) And Misskelley’s so-called “confession” was riddled with significant errors. The source of many of the errors in his confession is clear: they were the rumors that were circulating around West Memphis during the month following the murders. For example, Jessie “confessed” that they:
(1) sodomized the boys both before and after they killed them (forensic evidence later revealed that the boys had not been sexually assaulted);
(2) strangled the boys (Dr. Frank Peretti, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsies, testified that there was no evidence of strangulation);
(3) murdered the boys around noon (when they were still in school) rather than “between 1 a.m. and five or seven in the morning,” as Dr. Peretti testified (or during the night, as subsequent forensic experts have estimated);
(4) tied the boys’ hands but not their legs (in fact, their left wrists were tied to their left ankles and their right wrists to their right ankles); and
(5) tied the boys with rope (rather than with their shoestrings, a fact that Jessie got right, he said, only after one of his interrogators said, “Come on, Jessie, you know it was shoestrings, not rope!”).
These are only a few of the important discrepancies between fact and Jessie’s confession. You might think that these discrepancies, coupled with the lack of any physical evidence tying Damien, Jason, and Jessie to the murder scene, would have been a problem for those who investigated and prosecuted the West Memphis Three, as Damien, Jason, and Jessie are now known. But you would be wrong. When a reporter asked Sheriff Gary Gitchell, the chief investigator, to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how solid his case was, he said, “Eleven.” The state’s deputy prosecutor, John Fogleman, concurred. In fact, however, the state’s case relied not on any evidence but on a ludicrously illogical argument: the prosecution argued that (a) Damien and his friends were interested in the occult and (b) the murders were part of an occult ritual, and therefore (c) Damien and his friends must have committed the murders. Of the three parts of this quasi-syllogism, only one is true: Damien was indeed interested in the occult. (According to the state’s own “expert” in the occult, there was no evidence that Jason was linked in any way to the occult, and no occult-related motive was raised in Jessie’s trial, which was separate from Damien and Jason’s.) But there was no evidence that the murders were part of an occult ritual, and even if there had been, having an interest in the occult doesn’t constitute proof that you committed murder. But this lack of logic didn’t deter the deputy prosecutor. After reading into evidence the number of black T-shirts Damien owned and recounting Damien’s taste in music, movies, and literature, and so forth, Fogleman said to the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, each item, in and of itself, doesn’t mean somebody would be motivated to murder—not in and of itself. But you look at it together, and . . . you begin to see inside Damien Echols. You see inside that person, and you look inside there, and there’s not a soul there.”
Once Fogleman had linked Damien to the occult through his taste in art, he proceeded to link the crime to the occult and, by implication, to Damien. He called to the stand Dale Griffis, a so-called “Doctor” of Occult Studies—a man who admitted on cross-examination that he had received his Ph.D. from a mail-order university without having taken any classes. This “expert” testified that wearing black, listening to heavy metal music, and reading Stephen King novels were common indications that someone was involved in Satanism. He also said that the very fact that there were three victims was evidence that their murder was part of a satanic ritual. “One of the most powerful numbers in the practice of Satanic belief,” he said, “is six-six-six, and some believe the base root of six is three.” While there’s no evidence that Damien ever invoked the number 666, there is evidence that the police did: the original docket number assigned to Damien’s case ended in 555 but one of the detectives changed it to 666.
After the so-called “expert” on the occult testified about the satanic nature of the murders, Fogleman returned to the subject of Damien’s literary taste, saying that the fact that he liked to read Stephen King and Anne Rice revealed his “belief system” and “state of mind.” But he didn’t find evidence of Damien’s guilt only in his literary taste; he also found it in poems Damien had written in his private journal, poems that he proceeded to read to the judge, jury, and all else present. Among the poems was this untitled one:
Though the poem was written well before Damien was arrested, it nonetheless reads like an ironic commentary on the investigators, prosecutors, and jury and the wrongs they committed in their self-righteous pursuit of justice—the “blackness” that followed them into their “white.” But Fogleman didn’t see it this way, of course. After reading the poem, he turned to the jury and said, “That right there tells you Damien Echols. He don’t want to be in the white. He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to be both where he can go to the good side or the bad side, however it suits his purpose. If he wants to do bad, let’s go to the satanic side. . . .That poem right there tells you about Damien Echols.”
When I first heard Fogleman’s words—in Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger’s award-winning 1996 HBO documentary about the case—I thought of an earlier fan of capital punishment who saw a close connection between poetry and evil: Cardinal Richelieu, the notoriously ruthless seventeenth-century prime minister of France. He once said, “Give me six lines of verse by any honorable man and I shall find in them ample reason that he be hanged.” If there has ever been a more chilling attack on poetry, I don’t know what it is. Notice that the good cardinal wasn’t talking about a criminal, but about an honorable man. In Richelieu’s opinion, poetry is by its very nature so immoral that even an honorable man couldn’t write more than six lines of it without succumbing to blasphemy, sedition, or any of a number of other reasons for execution. Evidently, the jurors who convicted Damien likewise found ample reason in his poem that he be executed.
When I asked Damien during a June, 2005, visit how he felt when the deputy prosecutor used his poetry and journal entries as evidence against him, he said that at that time he was far more upset about having his private thoughts and feelings made public than he was about being convicted and sentenced to death. At first his answer surprised me, but then I remembered he was still a teenager at the time, and, as several studies of teens have taught us, at that age we fear nothing more than embarrassment, not even death. Also, as Damien explained, he hadn’t been too worried about going to prison or being executed, because he believed that everything would be straightened out soon, that it just wasn’t possible for an innocent person to be convicted of a crime without any evidence. So his death sentence didn’t really bother him all that much. But having his private thoughts and feelings revealed to the world—that upset him enormously. He was so upset, in fact, that for three years he didn’t write another word—and this was someone who had filled several notebooks with poems by the time he was arrested. During those three years, he woke every day so full of rage at being unjustly imprisoned—and at being routinely beaten by guards and raped, during his first year on death row, by an inmate the guards allowed into his cell—that he felt he had to do something or he’d either kill himself or go mad.
What he did was begin to write poetry again—and essays and fiction and memoirs and journal entries—and he now says that writing, along with reading and painting and his beautiful and intelligent wife Lorri Davis, who directs his legal defense fund, has kept him alive and sane. During his incarceration, he has read literally thousands of books, everything from pulp fiction to philosophy, and he has handwritten five books of memoirs, essays, and poetry, and is currently writing two others, a novel and another collection of poems. Almost Home, the first volume of his memoirs, was published in 2005, and his poems have appeared in such highly respected literary journals as Hunger Mountain, Water~Stone, The Louisville Review, Porcupine, and Rattle. One of his poems, “Army Reserve,” was set to music and recorded by Pearl Jam on that group’s self-titled 2006 CD, and Damien’s lyrics will also be featured on Illusions, a forthcoming CD by Michale Graves, formerly of The Misfits, who has set fifteen of Damien’s poems to music. Damien’s artwork will also grace the CD’s cover, just as it has graced gallery walls in San Francisco and other cities.
There are days when Damien is too depressed to write, days when he does nothing but sit and stare blankly at the cinderblock walls of his cell. Other days he paints, or creates collages, or builds wooden boxes, chess boards, and other objects as gifts for his many friends and supporters. On the days he does write, Damien will sometimes work feverishly for 10-12 hours. He writes so much, he says, because he’s facing the ultimate deadline, his execution.
Getting into prison was easy for Damien. Getting out is quite another matter. For the past fourteen-plus years, Damien has been going through the torturously long and astonishingly expensive state and federal appeals processes. The only way he will ever be free is if enough people get involved in the effort to overturn his conviction. Damien’s writing and reading helped put him into prison, and I’d like to see writers and readers band together to help him get out. If you’d like to find out more about his case, I urge you to go to the West Memphis Three website (www.wm3.org), read Mara Leveritt’s carefully researched Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three (from which many of the facts and quotations in this essay are taken), and view the two prize-winning HBO documentaries about the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, both available on DVD. But most of all I urge you to contribute, as generously as you can afford, to the Damien Echols Defense Fund, P.O. Box 1216, Little Rock, AR 72203. There has never been a more crucial need for financial support. As Lorri Davis explains in a letter currently on the West Memphis Three website,
Lorri’s words bear repeating: time is running out. Without our help in raising the money needed for the Legal Defense Team to prove Damien’s innocence, his Ultimate Deadline will come much too soon and rob us not only of a good, innocent man but a man who has the raw talent and vision to become a significant writer and artist. With our help, we can free the West Memphis Three and give Damien a long peaceful life of writing and painting in a place far from the cinderblock cells and concertina wire of Varner, a place where his body, soul, and imagination will be free to create, and a place where his Ultimate Deadline will be a natural one, not one wrongly imposed by Arkansas’s deeply flawed criminal justice system.