A Love Story on Death Row

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Damien Echols and his wife Lori in the WNYC studios

Damien Echols was just 18 years old when he was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His case—that of the infamous “West Memphis Three”—was the subject of Joe Berlinger's documentary "Paradise Lost." Lorri Davis was a landscape architect living in New York City when she saw the film, and she couldn’t get Echols out of her head—so she wrote him a letter. Over the course of a 16-year correspondence, Echols and Davis grew to know each other, fall in love, and marry while he was still in prison.

Davis explains that she felt a connection to Echols after seeing “Paradise Lost”: “It’s hard to explain when you feel a connection to someone and I’d never been moved to do anything like that in my life. To reach out to someone like that.” Echols was drawn to her letters right away. “I knew from the very first letters that I received from her, this is someone completely and absolutely unlike anyone I’ve ever known before.”

Echols’s Metallica albums and Stephen King novels were used in court to show that, according to the prosecutor, he had no soul. The prosecutor and the judge were so confident that Echols and his co-defendants would be convicted that they allowed the trial to be filmed by Berlinger. Echols explains, “The only thing that made this case exceptional was the fact that we got the entire thing on film. Most people aren’t that lucky.” He’s only seen the beginning of “Paradise Lost.” “It was too much.”

Davis explains how their relationship blossomed through the letters.  “We corresponded so much before we actually met in person that we had fallen in love with each other’s minds.” And it was a different kind of courtship. Echols says, “We were together for, I think, 4 years before we ever touched. We did not touch for the first time until the day we were married.”

Echols has not been exonerated after DNA evidence proved his innocence. Instead, he took a little-used plea known as an Alfred plea in which a person is allowed to legally maintain his or her innocence while accepting a guilty plea. He explains, “It makes no sense whatsoever, but it allows the state to not be held responsible for what they’ve done.” To date, no one has apologized to Echols or his co-defendants.

For most of the last decade he was in prison, Echols was in solitary confinement. He still struggles with PTSD. “For the first year that I was out I was in such a state of shock and trauma…I needed someone with me all the time. I’ve been out about 3 years now and it’s gotten a lot easier, but I still have a lot of issues.”

Their book is Yours for Eternity: A Love Story on Death Row.