Damien Echols Speaks And Signs "Life After Death" At UCLA
"All my life I've heard people say, 'Why would God allow this to happen?' I think it's because while we can see only the tragedy, God sees only the beauty. While we see misery, Divinity sees us lurching and shambling one step closer to the light. I truly do believe that one day we'll shine as brightly as the archangels themselves." --Damien Echols, Life After Death
Damien Echols, a writer and an innocent survivor of Arkansas' Death Row, spoke in conversation with rock musician Dave Navarro at UCLA's Freud Playhouse Wednesday night.
Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, was wrongfully convicted of murdering three young boys when he was 18 years old in 1993, and was sentenced to death.
He and the other two men convicted of the murder, now in their late 30s, were released in August 2011 after making an Alford Plea, meaning that they agreed to guilt on the basis that the court could convict them, while maintaining a personal statement of innocence.
Now, on a months-long media spree, promoting a new documentary and a memoir, Life After Death, Echols is fighting to be exonerated.
"The last thing in the world I was ready for is TV cameras and newspaper reporters," Echols said. "The state isn't going to do anything to correct this case, so the burden falls on us."
He described reliving his traumatic prison experiences as a "necessary evil" to try to get progress in the case.
When Echols told the story about being taken to "the hole," chained to the bars and beaten by guards for the first 18 days he was in prison, he mentioned the Catholic deacon who told the prison warden to make it stop or else he'd go public.
Behind me, where Echols' wife Lorri Davis was sitting with some friends, I heard someone say, "I wish he had [gone public]."
On Death Row, Echols said, he never feared violence from other prisoners. It was always from the guards.
Even though the guy in the next cell may hate your guts, Echols said, you both have a common enemy, "because the state is trying to kill you."
About a hundred people came to see Echols at UCLA, some of them with tattoos and uniquely shaved heads.
Before the event began, the Book Soup spokesperson asked that nobody use flash photography during the conversation because it would hurt Echols' eyes, which were depleted during his 18 years in solitary confinement.
Throughout the night, Echols wore sunglasses, even once outside, signing books.
In the year he's been free, he's put on 60 pounds, but the color hasn't fully come back to his face.
Between bits of conversation, Echols stared down toward his right shin on his crossed leg, and though some of his answers were repeated from the endless interviews he does, his thoughtfulness always shined through.
When he and Navarro first came to the stage, they stood in front of and over the applauding crowd.
The credentialed photographers got about a minute to take pictures, and I'm sure Echols had his eyes closed.
Once seated, he said "this is scary as hell" and thanked Navarro for being up there with him.
Both men were wearing all black. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I noticed that the boots Echols was wearing matched those that I've seen Johnny Depp wear almost everywhere he goes.
Depp and Echols have a relationship similar to Truman Capote's with Perry Smith (though Smith actually killed people), in that the men feel like they've been raised in the same house, with one man going out the front door and the other out the back, so to speak.
They were both raised poor in the South, moved countless times as kids, not making a lot of friends, being identified as "freaks" in conservative towns.
Navarro, the guitar player for Jane's Addiction, discussed the murder of his mother, which happened when he was 15 in 1983.
Her killer was sentenced to Death Row.
About two months ago, the killer's sentence was reduced and he was released into general population.
Navarro had met Echols two weeks before that happened. They share a mutual love for tattoos.
Echols personally gave Navarro a little "X" on his wrist.
Navarro called it "divine" that they met when they did, saying that knowing Echols changed his whole thought about his mother's killer's reduced sentence.
He started to cry, and Echols reached over and touched his knee--one woman let out a small clap.
Echols embodies and always speaks about how pain makes people grow and deepen, even though we hate it and try to run from it.
"There's not just random chaos," Echols said, "there's some kind of beauty behind it."
Echols said he wants people who read his book or hear his story to "come out of it wanting something more out of life."
In prison, Echols read a quote from the Buddha that said, "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."
From there, he began rigorous literary and meditation practices that helped him survive and keep sane.
Having visited San Quentin, Navarro told about a prisoner who said he kept sane in pitch-black solitary confinement by ripping a button off his prison uniform and throwing it somewhere in the cell, spending all his time trying to find it.
Navarro said that Echols has become an icon for this generation, showing that there's "no circumstance one can't overcome or at least adjust to."
When the Book Soup people said that there was only time for two audience questions, which were written on slips of paper beforehand, Navarro said, "So 'what's your favorite color' we can get rid of," and tossed the first slip behind him. Everyone laughed.
And when time ran out, Navarro said, "He's been in prison 18 years and you're giving him the hook?"
Outside, the line for the book signing included most of the crowd.
Echols sat a table, aided by Book Soup employees and one large security guard in a black suit.
He shook everyone's hand, thanking them for showing up. Some people brought him gifts.
I reminded him of the interview we did over the phone on Monday, when he thanked me for "having him" just as much as I thanked him.
His face, behind the glasses, grew concerned. "Which one?" he asked.
"In the afternoon…the one for Neon Tommy," I said.
"Oh I saw that this morning. That was the one this morning, right? That was really well-written," he said. "Thank you for doing that."