The architect and the inmate 

Public for the first time, the woman who married Damien Echols discusses their relationship.

I first saw Lorri Davis inside an Arkansas prison. It was early 1997. We were at the Maximum Security Unit at Tucker. Both of us were visiting men on Death Row.

I'd come from Little Rock for an interview. She'd flown here from New York, I later learned, because she was falling in love.

Thick glass windows separated us from each other and from the white-suited inmates we'd come to see. Still, I could see that she was visiting Damien Echols, and that she bore little resemblance to most of the wives, mothers and friends of inmates - the poor Arkansas folk - who usually came to the prison. This woman visiting Echols looked ... cosmopolitan.

Afterwards, we introduced ourselves while waiting for a guard to open the gate. She struck me at the time as gentle, smart and dignified. That impression has not changed in the years I've known her since.

Yet that impression contrasts sharply with the one that is widely held of her husband, the inmate she eventually married. In 1993, Damien Echols and two other teenagers were accused of having murdered three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis. A year later, Echols was tried on circumstantial evidence, found guilty and sentenced to death. His co-defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., received sentences of life in prison.

Davis married Echols in December 1999, but, despite requests for interviews, including many from national media, she has never before spoken publicly about what led to that decision, or what her life has been like since she made it.

Several weeks ago, the Arkansas Supreme Court rejected what may be her husband's final appeal in this state (he can continue appeals of his conviction in federal court). That ruling "played a part," she said, in her decision to speak out publicly now about her husband and her marriage.

I began by asking what she hoped to accomplish.

LD: "There comes a point when you realize that you might not have a lot of time left, and there's a lot of work to be done.

"I've always been private about my relationship with Damien. I have never done an interview, and only now feel compelled to.

"I'm speaking about him publicly now because I see how he has been portrayed in the media, and I understand that the perception of him here in this state is still, largely, that he is - first of all, guilty - and that he's also evil and scary. And I see that, with some very, very important exceptions, he is still portrayed that way.

"I want to try to change that. I cannot just sit back any longer and not speak out for him.

"I've known Damien for eight years. I know him very well. And I wish there was some way I could reach out and impart that knowledge about him to everyone, as I have with my friends.

"If one person reads this piece and feels the need to learn more about his case, then talking about my life with Damien will be worth it. I'd like to tell people, 'There is so much more to learn than what you've been told.'

"I didn't want to go to the national media first. It's here that a change has to start. It's here that matters most."

ML: Why have you not done this before?

LD: "First of all, I have always been protective of our relationship. Let's face it, most people who would marry someone on death row - people think there's something terribly wrong with them.

"That's always been a big reason why I have not been public. I respect my relationship with Damien, and I have never wanted to let people take a stab at it.


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