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Witch on death row 

Damien Echols contends his only crime was being different.

TUCKER — In a two-and-a half-hour interview last week in the stark setting of the Maximum Security Unit's visitation room, Damien Echols said that until television news reported the killings, he had never heard of Steve Branch, Chris Byers, or Michael Moore, the three 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found, one of them mutilated, in a ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis a year ago last May.

But even at that early stage in the case, Echols recalled, the TV news reporter said detectives were compiling a psychological profile of the type of person who might commit such a crime. "I told my mom, 'Watch. You wait and see. They're going to be here,' " he said. "And they showed up about an hour later. They asked me, 'Why do you think somebody would have done something like this?' "

Seated behind a glass window with a small screen for voices to cross, Echols described his life and the circumstances he believes led police to his door--a visit that resulted a year later in his being sentenced to death. His demeanor was quietly intense; his hair and eyes dark; his voice, cuffed hands and slightly fidgeting fingers all soft. Since his trail last March he has grown a wisp of a beard and mustache.

"I did not kill anyone," Echols said at one point in the interview. "And I'm to the point now where I don't care if people believe me or not."

Despite such professed indifference, Echols is generally cooperating with his attorneys in pursuing his appeals. At their request, he denied interviews to several other media. Although the attorneys also advised against an interview with the Arkansas Times, Echols insisted.

He answered questions freely, speaking in complete, quiet sentences. Occasionally he relaxed into a little laugh. Mostly, though, he sounded like a kid with a bad case of existential angst, the sort of thing that frequently clears up with one's complexion--or ends in suicide.

But Echols' case is no romantic opera. He was here on death row when the state of Arkansas took out two of its other residents and executed them last May. Here, worries about issues of being and death are more than idle musings.

"I have no idea where I was born," he says, when asked to begin at the beginning. He does know the date: Dec. 11, 1974.

"We moved around a lot. I've lived in Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Maryland--too many states to name. I have no idea why we moved so much. We just did. "My father usually worked as the manager of something--a restaurant or a gas station--and one day he'd come home and tell my mother to pack up because we were leaving. Most of the time, he wouldn't give any notice.

"Since we moved around so much, I never really hung around people my own age. I was a loner. That's the way I liked it, though. I liked being with people for short periods of time, but I liked being by myself more. I like the quiet, and I like the time to think. And I like to read. Books and music are my entire life."

Echols listed as his current favorites "anything by Anne Rice, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dean Koontz--and anything on World War II." In music, he said, "some days I like Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeath, Slayer; music like that. When I'm in a another mood, I'll listen to U2, REM, Pink Floyd. I love The Doors, Pearl Jam, Nirvana."

But that's getting ahead...

During his childhood, when his family was so transient, the teenager known now as Damien Echols was named Michael Wayne Hutchinson. He lived with his mother and father until their divorce, when he was 8. He recalls their marriage, not as particularly stormy, but difficult. "I don't know what it was," he says. "I think they were just too young when they got married."

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