September 29th, 2010
04:04 PM ET

Reporter's Notebook: My death row interview

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/CRIME/09/28/west.memphis.3.damien.echols/t1larg.jpg caption="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." width=300 height=169]

Deb Feyerick

(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.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Crime • Deborah Feyerick
soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. shaun

    Keep up the good fight! i'll be hoping justice finds you well

    September 30, 2010 at 8:31 am |
  2. Polly

    Dear Mr. Cooper,
    I just wanted to express my thanks to you and your staff for presenting the Damien Echols story and for the interview of Mr. Byers. Bless his heart, Mr. Byers has gone through so much in all this and has shown great courage in stepping up to the plate to find real justice for his son, Chris.
    Often the people who hate him focus on what they think is mental illness and they don't even want to hear about the institutions in Arkansas who got into trouble misdiagnosing children like Damien who depended on Medicaid to pay his hospital costs. They forget that he was just a kid. When I see him on television, I am amazed at how well he has stood up to the horrific life he has been forced to live. I think by now, I would have completely gone insane. Goes to show you how strong he was inside and not even he himself realized it.
    They call us supporters and our motto is:
    Free the Three and Justice for the Six
    Next, thank you also for reporting the U of Michigan story and the Michigan AG assistant or whatever that piece of crap thinks he is. I went back to college as someone's Mom and I learned a lot just from the young students. I cannot imagine what is in the mind of a "professional" adult who would attack a young man who is well loved and respected on his campus. It is too late for that man to back off, he needs to be in jail. Seriously. He crossed the line way past even stalking.
    Thank you again for the service you have used your journalism skills for. I learned a long time ago that it is better to take the cases we have to the people instead of the courtroom.
    Folks like you are good people.

    September 30, 2010 at 12:39 am |
  3. Jon

    Good luck, Damien. We are pulling for you in Ozark, AR.

    September 29, 2010 at 11:38 pm |
  4. Todd Moore- Michael's dad

    Myself along with all of the other parents, except Mark Byers and Pam Hobbs, know that these men are guilty and were rightfully convicted by two separate juries. These convictions have been upheld time after time by the courts. It sounds as if all the parents believe these men are innocent and that is not true. The majority of the families have not changed our positions on these convictions despite a countless wave of so called experts that the defense has hired over these past 17 yrs.
    My son was murdered by Echols and his friends and justice is being served by keeping the guilty in prison where they belong.

    September 29, 2010 at 10:55 pm |
  5. Jenny

    After reading everything I can get my hands on about this case, I do hope that he will get a new trial. I cant understand why people who think he is guilty would block it. If he is guilty, they will have another chance to prove it and this time with a chance to have better forensic evidence. If he isn't, then they will be correcting a mistake that took away half these boys' lives. But I don't believe that 3 teenage boys could commit a murder like this without any evidence- mud, blood, hair etc. linking them to the place where the victims were found. Do what is right Arkansas.

    September 29, 2010 at 10:50 pm |
  6. JC-Los Angeles

    You describe this convicted felon as "thoughtful" and then articulate that "his face lights up and you glimpse another side of him."

    Unfortunately, his victims aren't here to critique his level of thoughtfulness since they experienced another side of him.

    Go read Teen Beat magazine and continue your demented celebrity obsessions.

    September 29, 2010 at 8:18 pm |
  7. JimmyDiDago

    As anyone who's been on the wrong end of a cowardly, insensitive and over politicized system would know, these fellows will meet every possible roadblock conceived to deny them a fair trial. It's no coincidence that the prosecutors, who are now judges, are continuing this charade to save their own skin and possibly their seats on the bench.
    In my area, about the same time, there was a similar case where the prosecutor was also the detective investigating the case. He is now the elected County Prosecutor.
    Since then, a more than fair amount of evidence has resurfaced to at least afford the accused a new trial. But , the County Prosecutor continues to railroad the system out of fear for his own political survival. Our finest investigative reporter has been fired by our local newspaper for getting involved. One of the court appointed attorneys, who is now also a judge, has acquitted them and now faces a stealth and determined opposition in his run for election.
    I am not saying that in either instance anyone is to be found not guilty, but the common sense and common good that our system is supposed to be all about is clearly being evaded simply so the cowards that convicted these people so hastily can retain their power, influence and reputation within this system.
    How many times nationally do we have to hear about similar prosecutorial misconduct before the people stand up and demand more. Prosecutors nowadays seem only to be interested in number of convictions and a future seat on the bench than the common good, or the will, of the people.
    Our system, for many years now , is sounding much like the third world systems we so readily rail against and send our boys to die for.
    Give those accused, the victims families and the public the decency of full closure, as our constitution guarantees, or call for the people rise up vote these bums out.

    September 29, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  8. Jerry

    Something in my gut tells me he was wrongly convicted. I do hope he is granted a new trial so that he may prove his innocence.

    September 29, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  9. Billy

    I dont think he did it.

    September 29, 2010 at 6:38 pm |
  10. Leona meaders

    I am praying i saw this story on 20/20 i believe the stepdad did it and framed the 3 people

    September 29, 2010 at 6:19 pm |
  11. Bonny, Scotland

    This case disturbs and frightens me.

    How can so much go so wrong, not only for the 3 innocents murdered, but the 3 young men rotting in a cell, for crimes no-one is really convinced the committed.

    Thank you for keeping it in the public domain.

    September 29, 2010 at 5:03 pm |
  12. Eileen Brunner

    I'm reading Devil's Knot. Honestly, I'm halfway through, and my heart breaks for the 3 men (boys at the time). I cannot believe the miscarriage of justice, but sadly it happens mote than we know. From the cops to the judges.....who's going to step up and do their job??

    September 29, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  13. Angie

    Please give these 3 men new trials...if you think they are guilty beyond a resonable doubt, what are you afraid of?

    September 29, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  14. Lisa

    Interesting case. Read the records, and find out about this man's mental problems, his psycho evaluations, the fact that he was on permanent disability for mental problems. He is a perfect psychopath, charming and manipulative. He is guilty as hell! Why no mention today of his mental problems and acting out? They are trying to make a martyr out of this conman!

    September 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
  15. Sara

    I pray for Damien every day. I REALLY hope that he, Jessie, and Jason get the freedom they deserve. FREE THE THREE!

    September 29, 2010 at 4:18 pm |
  16. ginam

    thank you for a glimpse at this mans life.

    September 29, 2010 at 4:12 pm |