The Damien I Know - 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. "I absolutely believe in Damien's innocence, and I feel I have a job to do. I have never felt that speaking out publicly would help him. I felt it would hurt him to publicize it, and it might hurt our relationship. "But people need to know what has happened here and what he is really like. He is so different from what has been reported about him, and the rumors that have circulated about him for years, and it's time that all that be put to rest. "I believe that will be done in time. But it needs to start now." ML: So talk about how you became involved with an Arkansas inmate on Death Row. LD: "I grew up in West Virginia, but at the time, I was living in New York City, where I was working for a design firm. And I also worked for the city of New York, in its Department of Cultural Affairs. "Every year I would go to the New Films, New Directors film series at the Museum of Modern Art. And I saw the screening of Paradise Lost [a 1996 documentary about the West Memphis murders, for which Echols was sentenced to death]. That was before it aired on HBO, or was released to theaters. And, to make a long story short, I became very concerned about Damien and his situation, and about the situation at large. "I was saddened by the film. I found it hard to watch in many ways, and afterward, I found I couldn't stop thinking about it. "I was so struck by the feeling that something was terribly wrong: I knew those three teenagers hadn't committed those murders. I was left with the feeling that I wanted to learn more, and I was left feeling helpless." ML: What was it about Damien, in particular, that affected you? LD: "I felt a connection to him, like we were kindred spirits of sorts. I don't especially think that that time in his life [the period of his trial, as shown in the documentary] - let's put it this way - it was not his shining moment. But for what he was up against, I could see that there was a will there, and a very strong will, and I could identify with that. "My dad has called me a rebel at heart, and I could see that that was there in him too, and, unfortunately, it was used against him, whereas I have always been protected and safe. "I reacted to his strength of character. It was also apparent in that film that he was very intelligent, and had a curiosity about life. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind. That was unfortunate in the circumstances, but I respected him for it." ML: How long was it before you contacted him, and how did you feel about doing that? LD: "It was three weeks or so. At first, it didn't even occur to me that I could write to him. When I decided to do it, I was very nervous about it. ML: What did you say? And how did he respond? LD: "I told him that I had seen the movie, that I believed in his innocence, and that I wanted to learn more. I also told him that I hoped I wasn't imposing. "Here I was, this person he didn't even know, writing to him, and hoping he would write back. It seemed like a breach of his privacy. "He wrote back, and I could feel the relief in his answer. He couldn't believe that someone had seen the movie, that finally someone believed in him. "Later he would have so many people write and say the same thing, but at that point he was amazed that the movie had even been screened." ML: Do you still write to each other? And how often, on average? LD: "We write every day, if we can." ML: Describe the person you began to see through those early letters. LD: "When we first started writing, Damien was still very much in the world he had been yanked out of. He wrote about his childhood, his friends... But we soon started writing about things we could both relate to, like music, or books. "I started sending him books almost immediately, and he suggested books for me to read, and we would write about those. "He seemed very strong to me even then; he always has, throughout our relationship. I remember being awed by what he had endured, yet he wanted to keep living. He just wanted to learn. "I didn't know what he looked like then, except for some photos that were printed in this paper. He sent me those. He didn't know what I looked like until several months after we started writing." ML: Eventually, I know, you began to speak with him by phone. Explain how that works. LD: "We didn't talk for about four months. When I was placed on his phone list, he could only call me collect. A 12-minute call cost $12." ML: What do you think you brought to each other during that early part of your relationship? LD: "It's funny. I didn't realize it then, but Damien told me later that for the first year of our correspondence, most of the time he didn't have the slightest idea what I was talking about! "For example, I would tell him stories about things like taking a weekend trip to Monticello, and visiting a garden in D.C. called Dumbarton Oaks, and he would respond with how he didn't know anyone who would even walk out their back door to see a garden, let alone drive for five hours. "We were coming from such different worlds, yet we were always able to find a common ground. I was interested in his views, and he had many. I learned about things I didn't know anything about - and he was doing the same with me. "We shared so much information. We never grew tired of learning about each other, or things that interested us. "I also think I provided stability for him. It took a while for him to realize I wasn't going anywhere. On his side, he provided a great friendship for me, and a challenge - always a challenge." ML: Did you tell your family or friends or co-workers that you had begun this relationship? What was their reaction? LD: "I told my closest friends. I think they were concerned, because I reacted so strongly initially to Damien's situation. And, of course, he was in prison. They all stood by me, though. I've always had strong friendships, and I'll always be grateful for them. My friends are all still with me, supporting the two of us as we fight for Damien's freedom. "But now there are so many other people also supporting us - and so many of them have become friends. It's amazing. They've stood by Damien and me for years." ML: A lot of celebrities have lent their support. LD: "We wouldn't have much celebrity help, or other support, if it weren't for Grove Pashley, Burk Sauls and Kathy Bakken, who run the WM3.org website. "And yes, there are many people in the entertainment industry who have helped and supported us. Two who have provided crucial help are Eddie Vedder [of Pearl Jam] and Henry Rollins. "Eddie has been with us for six years. We simply wouldn't be where we are without him. And Henry has done a tour - several benefit concerts - and he's pressed media on the case. "We are forever grateful to them and to everyone who has helped out. It's amazing." ML: What has been your family's reaction? LD: "I didn't tell my family for three years. I wanted to be completely established in my relationship with him before I told them. My parents are very conservative, deeply religious people, and I didn't want to scare them. "It scared them, anyway. I have to say that my parents have amazed me. It took about a year for them to get over the shock, and learn more about the case and Damien's situation, but eventually they went to the prison with me and met him. "They were so impressed with him - and my dad is a hard sell in the best of situations. They're still concerned for us, but they now visit with us as much as they can. My mom writes to him, as does one of my sisters. It means a lot to him." ML: What was it like, the first time you visited Damien in prison? LD: "Hard. Sad. Scary. And incredible. I didn't know what to expect from the prison. I planned a whirlwind trip, flying in late at night. I had an early morning visit with Damien, and an afternoon flight back to New York. I was completely exhausted, emotionally and physically. "For one thing, I was shocked by how thin Damien was. He's 5-9, and he weighed about 116 pounds. At the time, he had long black hair. "Our visit was such a mixture of things. We were so happy to finally meet in person. We had so much to say. But it was hard, too. We didn't get a contact visit. There was glass between us, and that seemed so odd to me. Here was this person I had grown to care about, and was getting to know so well, and I couldn't hug him, or sit in a room with him. Nevertheless, I remember feeling comfortable with him." ML: When did you decide to leave New York and move to Little Rock? What prompted that? Did you tell people why you were leaving? Did you expect at that time that you and Damien would eventually marry? LD: "I decided to leave New York about a year and a half after I first met Damien. I can't really say what prompted it. "There came a time, after I'd known him for a while, that I realized this was what my life was going to be. I didn't exactly know what 'this' was, but it included Damien. I felt I was on automatic pilot - and still do, in some respects - and that I was going to work to help him. I had to be closer to him to do that. "I didn't tell anyone what I was doing, really. I wanted to keep my private life private. I had so many things to work out, it was a very hard time for me. I was leaving a great job, all my friends, my home - a city I loved. Yet I knew it was the right thing. "At that time we weren't talking about marriage. As I said, I had to work out too many things in my life just to move here. For one thing, I had to find work. Fortunately, I got a job I really like working as a landscape architect for the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department." ML: By the time you did decide to marry, how had you and Damien changed? LD: "All I can say is that we'd both gone through a trial by fire. We were both a whole lot stronger. We'd endured a lot of pain, but we'd had a lot of happiness together, too." ML: What did you have to do to arrange a wedding at the prison? What was it like? LD: "We just requested permission from the warden, it was granted, and the rest was like any other wedding - Ha! We were allowed to invite six guests. I wore a really lovely dress. Damien wore his 'prison whites.' He didn't have much choice in his wardrobe. It lasted about an hour, and it was the first time we ever touched. "All in all, it was a nice wedding. We had some great people around us, and we were sure about what we were doing." ML: What were your concerns about telling people where you worked about Damien? LD: "I wanted to be respectful of my director and supervisor, not to have them blind-sided. I told them before the wedding. They were shocked, of course, but handled it in a respectful way." ML: After the news of your marriage appeared in the papers, how did people react? LD: "There was this immediate difference when I walked into work. Suddenly people knew something about me that I had kept very private. I knew that I had to walk in and either dodge hostilities and fear or absorb them. I knew that people were making a judgment about me, but I had to keep doing my job. "But, as it turned out, it was not a painful ordeal for me. I really cannot describe how well the people in my workplace handled the situation. "I'll always be grateful to the people I work with. Some of them have become such great sources of support to me. Some still don't talk to me about it, but plenty do, and like me, they are convinced of Damien's innocence. "Over the years, as people who knew me became curious, some of them have wanted to know more, and that has made the huge leap, in ways, even more worthwhile to me, because it validated my commitment and dedication, not only to Damien, but also to the work I have to do for him. "I've seen people change their view of Damien by getting to know me. I think I'm such a normal person. I'm responsible, and I pay my bills, and I go out to dinner, and go to see movies, and I think it's hard for them to think I would ever be associated with someone who was capable of committing such a heinous crime as he was accused of. "And I think that dilemma that they're faced with when they meet me makes them question whether there may be more to this story than they were told 10 years ago. Knowing me has prompted them to learn more about what happened in this case, and that makes it all worthwhile to me. "As with anyone else, my private life is my private life, but it sure feels wonderful to be able to talk about my situation at work when someone asks about it." ML: What is it like to live with the threat of an execution hanging over your marriage? LD: "It does not hang over us. I am absolutely of the belief that we are going to win this situation, so we don't think about it. "And plus, we really believe that the only way one does live through or carry on a relationship under such dire circumstances is to live in the time you have. You live in the moment you have, and even though that's hard to do, it really is all you have." ML: Yet you can't even live together. LD: "Honestly, I don't think most people could fathom it. I certainly would not wish it on anyone. "But what I can say is I just feel that this case was given to me as my life's work, and even though this is certainly not a traditional marriage, I did not go into it thinking that this is how it would be forever. "I went in thinking, 'I love this person. I believe in him. He's going to get out someday. And we will have a life together.' "Even though you live in the moment, you can have goals. That is our goal, and so we live this way now." ML: Apart from Damien, what is your life like? LD: "I keep my spirits up and have really good support. I swim. I walk. I do yoga. I maintain a spiritual practice. "I'm just kind of a naturally happy person, and I have to say that I attribute a lot of that to my parents, and with the fact that they provided me with a great foundation of strength and security. "I think it takes a great amount of security to feel that you're not going to fall off the face of the earth for venturing down this path, and I have that. I believe that the truth is going to come out. And I believe in Damien. ML: You mentioned feeling that you have a "job" to do with regard to Damien and his case. Can you elaborate on that? LD: "I'm his voice. Because of where he is, he doesn't have one. I work with his attorneys. I help raise funds for the three cases. I work with people who want to help in any way they can. I'm working to get the truth out. And it will come out." ML: You said at the start of this interview that you realize people perceive Damien as, first, guilty, and then evil, satanic, scary. LD: "I know. But I've never seen any of those traits. The Damien I know is a very talkative, inquisitive person, who is kind and thoughtful, and who has borne this horrific situation better than most people ever would. I've never known him to be hurtful. "He has grown as a person - spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. He's kept himself healthy, and his self-discipline is amazing. "He gave up smoking cold turkey in the first year that I knew him, and that was huge for me because I think smoking is so detrimental to your health, especially if you're in a stressful situation, as he is, and you're not taking care of your body. He did it of his own accord. "He exercises now. He's very fit. He eats as well as he can. He's no longer 116 pounds. He probably maintains around 150 to 160 pounds. He just looks healthy. For someone who gets relatively little sunlight and is confined to a cell, he looks healthy and he feels healthy. "I know he's perceived as guilty, scary, and, I guess, even maniacal. People think he's guilty, obviously, because of the jury's verdict. The other, more emotional terms come, I think, from that and from the images of him that were conjured up: the black clothing and the rumors of behavior that simply weren't true. There were so many things that came out of that community, and they're all tied together. "Also, I think some of Damien's behavior while he was on trial contributed to the image. That was a very scary and troublesome time in his life and he just, in some ways, did not react in the ways that some people would hope to see an innocent person react. And that's difficult for some people to understand. "It's hard for people to turn their minds around when they've been told this is the way things are, and they've been told that for a very long time." ML: Do you think you can counteract that? LD: "Here's the problem. There's the Damien that's been preserved on film and in the newspapers, and then there's the Damien I know. "I think if people could meet him and talk to him and spend time with him, without having the attachment of all the other images, they'd see that he's very courteous and polite, and very gentlemanly. He always has been. He's a wonderful conversationalist, and he's funny. "It's hard to take all of a person's attributes and put them into one sentence. But he's someone they would want to spend time with and get to know. "He likes people. He makes friends and he's maintained his friendships over the years. I can just say that most of the people who have had a chance to meet him, walk away impressed." ML: But hardly anyone who reads this will ever meet Damien in person. LD: That's true. But it's important what people think. Maybe some people who read this will take a second look at what happened 10 years ago. There are films [Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost: Revelations]. There's a website [wm3.org]. There's a book [Devil's Knot, by this interviewer]. There are many ways to get information about this case. "It really does make a difference what we as a community think. We elect our judges. They're responsible for making sure that justice is done for the community. And if there is an injustice, and we speak out about it, then something should be done. "Until now, I've kept my relationship with Damien mostly personal. I wanted desperately to keep our lives private. "But I've always said that if there was anything I could do to help him, I would do it. And that's why I'm speaking out now."

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