Once a death row inmate, Damien Echols learns to live a life of freedom in Salem. By Calvin Hennick // Photographs by Fawn Deviney
When Damien Echols was an 18-year-old on trial for murder in 1994, the prosecutor who claimed he’d killed three little boys as part of a Satanic ritual didn’t ask him about hairs and fibers from the crime scene. Instead, he asked about the teen’s interest in the occultist writer Aleister Crowley.
The verdict: Guilty. The sentence: Death.
Echols was released from death row in 2011 after DNA collected at the crime scene was tested and showed no connection to him or two others convicted of the murders. He spent a year after his release living in New York. But when it came time to make a permanent home for himself, he looked to a place where others had once faced questions about the devil on the witness stand. Echols, now 38, says he chose to move to Salem because the city learned its lesson about acceptance centuries ago.
“This place went from one extreme to the other,” he says, reclining with a mug of chamomile tea in his recently opened Reiki studio in Salem’s downtown. “[When my wife and I] first came here, we went on one of those tours where they take you around and they tell you the history of the different places. The guy that was leading us around said, ‘You know the people here; we’ve already been through this one time. We’ve seen the damage it causes, the pain, the suffering that it brings to the world, just being that intolerant, that foolish—and we’re in no hurry to do the same things again.’” As a result, Echols says, “It’s like nothing is out of the ordinary here.”
Indeed, Salem is a city where it takes more than Echols’s black clothes and tattoo-covered forearms to stand out. With his prescription sunglasses on, he can look icy and distant, but when he takes them off and gets to talking, his earnest eyes and Southern accent evoke former presidential candidate John Edwards—that is, if Edwards grew his hair out and started attending Metallica concerts.
Just as unlikely to raise eyebrows is Echols’s Reiki studio, where he conducts the ancient Japanese spiritual healing practice. His business, called Hermetic Reiki, occupies a small room on the second floor of an office building in Salem’s brick-laid pedestrian mall, putting it within spitting distance of witchcraft stores and gift shops that stock tarot decks. Echols had the room’s fluorescent lights taken out, and it is now illuminated by sunlight, candles, and a couple of small lamps. The scent of frankincense- and myrrh-infused essential oils fill the air, and a massage table in the center of the room takes up the bulk of the scant square footage. The walls and tables are adorned with calligraphy, a poster of a samurai warrior, and images and statues of various Buddhas. Bamboo plants and an orchid—gifts from clients—sit on the windowsill and the floor.
Echols picked up Reiki while he was in prison, and he says it helps him cope with the traumatic experiences he had there. After two years as a free man, he’s still adapting to life on the outside, and the simplest things have the power to amaze or terrify him. In one breath, he raves about the novelty of seeing Coke machines again after 18 years behind bars, and he hypes his favorite spots in Salem to buy bubble tea, butterfly cookies, and the mediocre pizza he can’t seem to stop eating. In the next, he talks about being paralyzed by everyday activities like swiping a credit card or finding his way to the doctor’s office.
But it was a trip to Salem’s Witch Dungeon Museum that gave him nightmares. “It’s pitch dark,” he says. “A lot of the people who couldn’t afford cells had these things called coffin cells, which are basically like a little slit in the wall where you [stand] for months. I was already in shock and [traumatized] from just getting out of prison…going to something like that probably didn’t help matters any.”
Although Echols and his wife Lorri Davis—who he married while imprisoned in 1999—bought their house in Salem last fall, they’re only now getting settled. For months, they’ve been busy promoting his book Life After Death—a New York Times bestseller, which was published last September and came out in paperback in May.
Echols says he gets sick of constantly talking about the case, but he can’t stop. “If we do quit talking about it, it just fades away. We will never be exonerated.” He uses that word—”exonerated”—because although he walks the streets free, he’s still a convicted child killer. As part of the deal that secured his release, Echols had to enter an Alford plea, conceding that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him, though he maintains his innocence.
Echols hasn’t been cleared in the court of public opinion, either. A series of documentaries about the case drew enormous public support for him—and for Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., the two other members of the “West Memphis Three”—and celebrity supporters like actor Johnny Depp, director Peter Jackson, and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder all spent years clamoring for their release. But you don’t have to spend much time online to find people who are still convinced that the three men are guilty of the murders.
Here are the bare facts of the case: Three eight-year-old boys—Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers—were reported missing on May 5, 1993, in West Memphis, AR. Their bodies, stripped and hogtied, were found the next day in a ditch. Misskelley, whose IQ has been reported to be 72, confessed to the murders and implicated Echols and Baldwin, although Misskelley recanted the confession, saying it was the result of police coercion. When DNA evidence from the scene was tested in 2007, none of it matched the three men.
Venturing beyond the bare facts, it’s difficult for many to believe that the state of Arkansas would agree to release the men if prosecutors really still thought they were guilty. But more than that, the prosecution’s original version of the murders—that three teenagers went into the woods and sacrificed three little boys to Satan—feels far-fetched, fantastical.
It feels like the basis for a witch hunt.
When Echols and Davis talk about their new hometown, they sound like realtors trying to get people to move to Salem.
“It’s not too suburban,” Echols says. “It’s not too rural. It’s not too urban. It’s a little bit of everything. You can live in a normal house, and it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg, like New York. You have all these different places … any kind of food you want. We can go out and get Chinese, Mexican, Japanese. Whatever it is you want here, you can walk and go get it.”
“I love it,” says Davis. “I’ve never lived in a town like this. I love the fact that it’s walkable. There [are] so many great restaurants. You walk out, and there’s always something new to see.” She adds, “You can feel anonymous here, and yet there [are] still familiar things.”
Echols and Davis say they’ve only had time to make a few friends in Salem so far. Among them are Josh DeVries—who owns Scarlet Letter Press in Salem and counts Hermetic Reiki among his clients—and DeVries’s wife. “They’re absolutely down-to-earth, some of the nicest, most well-spoken, positive people that we’ve ever met,” DeVries says.
Echols has to frequently replace the promotional posters that DeVries prints for him. They vanish every couple of days from downtown bulletin boards. Echols finds the thumbtacks in neat piles, carefully pulled out by the souvenir seekers who carry the posters away. His fame has followed him to Salem.
Echols and Davis are at work on a book centered around the more than 5,000 letters they exchanged while he was imprisoned, but Echols wants to eventually turn his attention toward writing about topics other than his incarceration. Already, he’s using DeVries’s services to print up small booklets about meditation and Reiki. “That’s what I’m passionate about,” he says. “That’s what I love doing. That’s what I want to put my energy into.”
Echols envisions growing his small Reiki business into a large center in Salem, with multiple practitioners and space where people can come to meditate. “Sort of like the MFA in Boston,” he says. “[The] dark room they have with all of the Buddha statues? I would love something like that. That’s my long-term goal.”
Business is already going well enough that Echols sometimes forgets to schedule days off for himself. Some of his clients just stumble upon him while searching for Reiki treatment, but others are looking for Echols specifically.
“Every now and then, you’ll have [people who] want to stay afterwards and chat, which I don’t really mind,” he says. “A lot of times I sit and have tea with them for a little while, talk about things. But whenever they start asking the same old, ‘So how’s Jessie Misskelley doing? How’s Jason Baldwin?’ it’s time to go. That’s not what this place is about.” ?n