(CNN) - The trip to the Varner Correctional Facility in Grady, Arkansas is about an hour’s drive south of Little Rock, past cotton fields and wide-open sky. We arrive two hours early for our 9 a.m. interview. Armed guards on horseback keep watch over the “hoe teams,” newly arrived prisoners lined up shoulder-to-shoulder tending the grounds outside the electrified prison fence.
Damien Echols is housed in the high security “super max” wing on death row along with about 40 other men. He tells me he is in solitary confinement, alone in his cell virtually 24/7. The lights are turned off at 10:30 p.m. and he wakes four hours later at 2:30 a.m. when the lights come back on. He gets one hour of “outdoor” time every day in an enclosed pen that one prison official describes as a “dog run” – concrete on three sides, a tin-roof above and a chain link door in the front. Echols says he can’t really see the sky from there and, besides, the air smells bad, he says, because of the cell’s location. He says he has very little contact with the other death row inmates – the only regular noise he hears is the screams of one of the men that he says has psychiatric problems.
When we arrive for what is supposed to be an hour long visit, Echols is waiting for us in a thin corridor with small cells on each side. Prisoners sit on one side and visitors on the other, separated by what looks like a thick plastic window. He is surrounded by prison guards who hold his arms, though there seems to be no place for him to run even if he wanted. His hands and feet are shackled, connected by a leather leash. As a prison official opens the corridor, Echols begins a slow steady walk for our camera. Having done this many times before, he’s well aware we’re rolling and walks slowly and steadily, gazing straight ahead. He enters the cell, framed by blue bars, and sits on a small counter touching the plastic window. He smiles at me and says “Hi.”
The guard first removes the leash and unshackles Echols’ feet, then he leaves and Echols moves to the door and slips his hands through an opening so those too can be unshackled. Echols slips on the wireless microphone, up through his white prison uniform, clipping the battery pack on the back of his pants. When I ask, he later tells me the white prison uniform isn’t even his. “I have no idea who this belongs to,” he says with a laugh adding that he usually wears a pair of beat-up old overalls.
Echols is medium height, about 5’9”- 5’10” and much thinner than the way he appeared at his trial in 1993. His face is extremely pale, almost ghostly, from lack of sunshine these last 16 years. He is thoughtful and serious though every now and then when he smiles, his face lights up and you glimpse another side of him. “You’re on death row,” I say. Then I ask “what makes you happy?” He smiles as he talks about his wife Lorri Davis, a landscape architect, who was drawn to Echols after seeing the HBO documentary “Paradise Lost.” They met and married while he was incarcerated and she has worked tirelessly to draw attention to his case and find new evidence to get him out of prison. Usually she visits on Fridays for three hours but because his case will soon go before the Arkansas Supreme Court, this week she’s visited on Wednesday in order to fly to California to meet with his lawyers and work on last minute items, he says. He gets one visit a week but this Friday, we are an exception.
Echols speaks seriously about the new evidence he hopes will get him a new trial and ultimately exonerate him: the strand of hair found in the shoe laces of one of the victims, the new forensic evaluations casting doubt on prosecutors’ original interpretation of the evidence, three witnesses who say they saw one of the children’s’ stepfather with the boys around 5:30 p.m. the night the boys disappeared. I ask him about Robin Hood Hills, the woods where the three eight-year-old boys used to play and hunt turtles and where their bodies were ultimately found, drowned in the bayou. He says he was never in those woods, nor were his two friends who are also accused of the murders. He blames his trial lawyer, a public defender who had never before served on a murder case, for failing to call eye witnesses who would have testified Echols was on the phone with them during the time the murders allegedly happened.
Echols has been in prison so long that he cannot even remember what his favorite food – pizza - tastes like. He misses fresh fruit and says it’s not allowed in prison because officials fear the inmates will try to turn it into alcohol. Although I’m not allowed in the cell area behind the thick plastic for what’s called a “contact” visit, he tells me how his wife and now-friend Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam sometimes kick back and eat M&M’s from the prison vending machine.
His case has drawn a lot of star power from the likes of Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Even before I learn Depp is a supporter, I immediately think he’d be perfect to play Echols in the movie, should there ever be one.
Echols and I talk for more than an hour covering all details of his case - why he says he is innocent, why he’s certain a new trial will exonerate him. He says that when he gets out he wants to live a quiet life with his wife and pursue a career in natural healing – motivated, he says, after prison guards allegedly beat him so badly in the head that he suffered excruciating pain in his teeth. Echols says he cured himself and says natural healing makes sense since so many people can’t afford traditional health care. He says he doesn’t particularly like reading philosophers, preferring instead to live in the moment. And he says his marriage works because he and Lorri find things to do that connect them every day, like drinking a glass of water at the same time.
The interview winds down; Echols takes off the microphone, slips his hands through the door where they are promptly shackled, then sits on the counter so guards can shackle his feet. As he turns, he smiles, holds up his hand in a wave, and thanks us all for coming. Then he is led back down the corridor he came from, back to death row, to his cell where he will spend his days as he always does – reading; meditating; practicing Reiki, the Japanese art of healing; and praying he will one day be set free.