Damien Echols and I have broken bread together. We've talked and shared stories about my writing and his prison time. Once upon a time I met him, then met him again, then again. His wife is inspiration, he is a warrior and his story is unforgettable. Meeting Damien Echols literally changed my life and my perspective on life. I owe him more than he knows.
Damien Echols was arrested in 1994 for the murders of three 8 year old boys in West Memphis Arkansas during the year of 1993. He was 17 years old and considered the ringleader of, what is known as, The West Memphis Three. Three teenage boys by the name of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin. Damien once told me he hates that title (WM3), so that's the only time I'll mention it.
I met Damien in 2013, two years after his release from prison on an Alford Plea deal. A deal that basically told the young men that they could not sue the state because there was enough evidence against them, but they they served their time. I won't go into details about what a bullshit situation this was. You'll have to watch the HBO documentaries Paradise Lost and West of Memphis if you're interested. And you really should be interested.
He was attending a Q&A with Henry Rollins as moderator at the New York Public Library. I brought my copy of The Crucible, which he signed. I chose The Crucible because the idea of burning what people considered 'evil' at the stake due to lack of evidentiary support had not changed over thousands of years. Those three young men were wrongfully convicted and the process of the investigation and trial were full of giant holes that were ignored by so many. It was truly heartbreaking.
Damien appeared again at a more intimate gathering. This was a tattoo parlor in downtown Manhattan where he presented a lot of art he had made in prison. I went with a friend of mine, Gillian Pensavalle, host of True Crime Obsessed, who had gotten an invite from Damien himself. His work was beautiful and filled with such emotion. I truly felt so lucky to be there to hear him tell his stories to such a small crowd.
Afterwards he invited Gillian and I to have dinner with him and his wife Lori, who was a tireless advocate for his case in the 90's after viewing the first Paradise Lost documentary, and ended up falling in love with him through letters and moving to Arkansas to directly work on his case. Follow their unique Love Story of literally finding love in a hopeless place in their book Yours for Eternity.
Being at this table of 5/6 was one of those most incredible experiences of my life. He told us so much about his favorite horror movies, experiences behind bars, the people he's met through out his life, what it was like for him right after prison... all of it. My mind and heart filled with so much, I felt overwhelmed. He was also interested in what Gillian and I had to say. What we were working on, what drove us, what we were looking forward to. The night started with nerves and excitement on our part and ended with a comfortable sense of budding friendship.
I started writing a play about miscarriages of justice. A play about 4 high school students who are killed and their crime scenes mirror Shakespeare's greatest tragedies so the state hones in on a method actor of color. It's a play I've done several readings of and can't wait to get up on its feet one day.
I also got hired to collaborate with a New York Times journalist on a staged original piece featuring the true story of several men who were Exonerated based on innocence uncovered by the Innocence Project. This was my very first paying writing job.