SALEM — Damien Echols walked down the Essex Street pedestrian mall yesterday smiling through the mist and drizzle.
“The thing I missed most inside was the rain,” he said. “You don’t realize how much you miss it until you don’t have it for 20 years.”
The sky was gray. Echols was dressed in black.
Black shirt. Black pants. Black boots.
“It makes you feel a little safer,” he said of a color he was worn since he was a Goth kid in a long, black coat growing up in a trailer park in West Memphis, Ark. “You’re a little more comfortable, and you don’t have to think of what you’re wearing. I literally have 10 pairs of these pants and 10 of these shirts.”
Straight black hair hangs to his shoulders.
His arms and fingers are covered with dark tattoos, Egyptian, Hebrew and Viking symbols. The Chinese words for “winter” and “snow” are scrawled on his forearms, along with a hexagram from the I Ching, tattoos he got with Johnny Depp, one of several celebrities who has become a friend and defender.
“For me, it’s almost like putting on armor of the things I love,” he said of the tattoos.
Just over a year ago, Echols, 37, was released from an Arkansas prison on a plea deal after DNA tests and other evidence pointed to his innocence.
He had spent half his life in the Arkansas prison system after being falsely convicted along with two teenage friends — The West Memphis Three — of the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.
Supporters said Echols, who was accused of being “Satanic,” was the victim of a witch hunt fueled by public hysteria. Over the years, his case drew national attention. He became the poster child for judicial injustice.
Even family members of some of the victims came over to his side.
Before his release last year, he had spent 18 years on death row, the last 10 in solitary confinement, in a tiny cell with almost no light.
“Here, try these on,” he said, as he handed over his prescription sunglasses. It was like looking through muddy water at the bottom of a pool.
“I didn’t see sunlight for almost 10 years,” he said. “Without these, I can see maybe 4 inches in front of me.”
Echols’ story has been told in an HBO documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” It has been featured on TV shows like “48 Hours” and, more recently, “CBS Sunday Morning.” It has been the subject of books and magazine articles.
Echols has his own documentary, “West of Memphis,” coming out later this year. It is produced by Peter Jackson of “Lord of the Rings” fame, another person who rallied to his side.
Right now, Echols is on a book tour for “Life After Death,” the haunting story of his troubled, impoverished youth and his horrific years in prison. Echols wrote the book himself in riveting, powerful prose that includes excerpts from his prison journal.
The book has made it to The New York Times best-sellers list.
All this from a young man who never made it past ninth grade, but who read thousands of books in prison, including Jung, Freud, Dickens and Dostoevsky.
“People ask me, ‘Where’d you learn to write?’ I say, ‘From reading Stephen King novels.’”
When he got out of prison, Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, a woman who not only married him but saved him, spent time at the Seattle home of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam fame. Vedder has been one of his strongest and most loyal backers.
Then they went to live in Jackson’s apartment in the Tribeca section of New York City.
A few weeks ago, they moved to Salem and live in a house on the edge of the downtown.
Coming to Salem
“I read about (Salem) in prison ...” he said. He added it to a list of things he wanted to do when he got out.
No. 1 on the list was go to a Red Sox game. He accomplished that last fall, sitting in the owners’ box and meeting Jonathan Papelbon.
Not far behind was “visit Salem.”
He and Davis made three trips here before deciding to settle. There was just something about the place that made them feel at home.
Not long after arriving, Echols was recognized by a member of the Wiccan community, who welcomed him and offered to help in any way she could. He was touched by the kind gesture.
A Catholic at one point, Echols has studied and practiced Buddhism and Eastern and Western mystical traditions. He survived in prison on meditation.
“I was doing meditation five to seven hours a day,” he said. “Without that, I would have died.”
He called Salem “a great place” where different beliefs are “not only tolerated but embraced.” Someday, he muses, he may open a meditation shop.
A friend joked that someone looking like Echols would draw stares in Arkansas. “Here,” the friend said, “they just assume you’re another businessman on his way home.”
He has hung out in witch shops, eaten breakfast at Gulu-Gulu Cafe, and walked around Pickering Wharf on a night when the full moon shimmered on the water.
“When you see something like that, you say, ‘This is the greatest place on Earth.’ Lorri and I keep saying that.”
They do mundane things, like going to Sears to buy appliances. They arrange for the walls to be stripped and the house painted.
But this is still hard, starting a new life after 18 years on death row, going from a prison cell so small he could take only two strides in one direction, to a book tour with so many stops he can’t count them.
From leg shackles to airplanes
“Yeah, you’re happy to be out, but you get crushed by the anxiety, the fears and uncertainty.
“I basically had to learn to walk again,” he said. “I had to learn to use silverware again, because in prison you eat with your hands. I hadn’t been anywhere in 20 years. I had been in a box.”
And now he is in Salem at Halloween, his favorite holiday and his favorite time of year. And yesterday he walked down the pedestrian mall in the mist and drizzle.
Over coffee, sitting at a small table, smiling and laughing, he was asked one last question.
So how are you doing?
“Getting better,” he said. “That’s what I usually say. ... I’ve been out about a year and a month and it’s gradually getting better with time.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.