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Editor's note: John Brummett wrote a two-part series of columns on his interview with Death Row inmate Damien Echols. Both are reprinted here.
The first thing that strikes you about Damien Echols is his hollow, pale, frail appearance.
That hair, much shorter now than when he got convicted of capital murder 14 years ago at age 19, remains jet black. His big, darting eyes are nearly as dark.
That provides a striking contrast against Echols'alarmingly washed-out complexion. He's all skin and bones, especially in the sparse and chiseled face that was so round and fat in those news videotapes from 1993.
“I haven't seen the sun in five years,” he says in an East Arkansas drawl from the other side of the glass, where the Death Row guard at the Varner Unit has just deposited him.
This is for what will be a two-hour interview. I am here because there's a new burst of activity from well-meaning people trying to build public sentiment in his behalf.
We will cover spirituality, love and marriage, art, literature, politics and, above all, the pursuit of “magic.”
No, not black magic. It may well have been Echols' tragic lot to be misunderstood. It becomes apparent that, by magic, he refers to grandly ambitious pursuits of creativity and learning in search of a higher meaning, or God, within himself.
From Death Row, he became an ordained Buddhist. But he likes Catholicism and says he never misses mass. He has maintained that fateful childhood interest in Wicca, a religion extolling nature and the supernatural, and which, let us stress, isn't Satanism. He embraces none of those exclusively, but applies all generally, he says, to seek “divinity through discipline.”
He writes not-bad poetry. He wrote an autobiography. He writes songs. He reads books, thousands of them. He has a wish list at amazon.com. People have sent so many books he has to have them stored in a mini-warehouse. He draws. He does yoga. He meditates. For a while, he ran in place for more than two hours at a time, until his feet bled.
If he gets out of prison, he plans to learn first-aid, ballroom dancing and “every swim stroke imaginable,” just for starters. His goal is to live large, not live dead, as he believes so many in his family and childhood circle lived.
He says his father stared into the distance over morning coffee as Damien's mom begged him to communicate. Then dad disappeared for 10 years.
Echols was a bright, troubled, disadvantaged, rebellious and irreverent kid in West Memphis who dropped out of high school and frequented the public library. He cut an eerie image in an old black trench coat that he found in the closet of an ancient house.
Even now, more pensive but still given to calling people “(bleeping) morons,” he sees clothes as an expression. If he gets out of prison, he says, he'll look for leather pants and silk shirts.
“I mean, if you're going to just wear jeans and a ball cap, I don't see the point in getting dressed at all,” he says.
Like all Death Row inmates, Echols is permitted to go to a caged, roofed, concrete-floored “yard” five hours a week. But he declines. He says the sun can't get through anyway. He says there are too many pigeon droppings out there. He says mosquitoes nearly carried him off.
Echols says he weighs 145 pounds, down about 60 pounds from his paunchy state when charged and convicted with two other outcast teenagers with torturing and killing three little boys in what police called a satanic act.
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