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ARTICLE PATRIK SANDBERG

PHOTOGRAPHY KARIM SADLI

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BLOOD SPORT

THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER

PARADISE REGAINED

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HAIR AKKI  GROOMING HANNAH MURRAY FOR TOPSHOP MANICURE BERNADETTE THOMPSON (THE WALL GROUP)  SET DESIGN STEFAN BECKMAN (EXPOSURE NY) DIGITAL CAPTURE DTOUCH NYC  PHOTO ASSISTANTS ANTONI CIUFO AND ANYKA ASIN  STYLIST ASSISTANTS LINDSEY HORNYAK, RASAAN WYZARD, OLIVIA KOZLOWSKI HAIR ASSISTANT REONA DEN  GROOMING ASSISTANT JENNIFER LOMBARDO  SET DESIGN ASSISTANTS FLETCHER CHANCEY AND KELSEY HALL  RETOUCHING IMAG’IN PRODUCTIONS PARIS LOCATION TEN TON STUDIOS, BROOKLYN   SPECIAL THANKS JEN DENIKE AND LORRI DAVIS 

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GREG K\'S TIFF REPORT PART 4 THE VIDEO: I\'M OUT DAN STEVENS

PARADISE REGAINED

PHOTOGRAPHY KARIM SADLI
FASHION BEAT BOLLIGER
TEXT PATRIK SANDBERG

IN 1994 DAMIEN ECHOLS WAS CONVICTED OF A CRIME HE DIDN’T COMMIT. NOW A FREE MAN WITH A MEMOIR AND A FORTHCOMING DOCUMENTARY, THE ARTIST IS READY FOR A NEW CHAPTER

“I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will think of me only as either someone on death row or someone who used to be on death row.” So writes Damien Echols in the preface to his new book, Life After Death. Today, sitting with Echols in a sprawling Tribeca penthouse on loan from close friend Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, the sentiment is further explained: “It’s kind of a horrible thing to be remembered and to be known for something that was done to you,” he says. “It’s part of what drives me to want to succeed. I want to do something that stands on its own merit, that people see and that they care about completely independent of all the other stuff… all the case-related stuff.”

When speaking of “the case,” Echols manages to compartmentalize the agony he’s experienced over the last two decades, presenting it as something that sounds like an isolated legal concern—which is quite impressive. The case at hand is of course his false conviction for a triple homicide handed down by an Arkansas court in 1994. He was sentenced along with his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—the trio would become known as the West Memphis Three—at the young age of 18. Baldwin and Misskelley, juveniles at the time, received life sentences. Damien, perceived as the ringleader, was sentenced to death. Rife with inconsistencies and false testimony, the trial presented the sensational theory that because the teenagers wore black, read Stephen King novels, and listened to heavy metal, they must have killed the victims, three neighborhood children, in a satanic cult ritual. The proceedings garnered widespread media attention, which led to the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Initially focused on the public hysteria surrounding the case, the film ends up hypothesizing that the West Memphis Three are innocent, as do its two sequels, released in 2000 and 2011. last year, following a decision on behalf of the court regarding new DNA evidence, the three were released from prison—but only after agreeing to sign a controversial Alford plea, which states they will not sue the state of Arkansas.

“With the new evidence, we would have won the case,” Damien explains, “but they would have stretched it out for five more years. Every time the court ruled in my favor, they would just appeal it to the higher courts, and they would have dragged it out forever. I didn’t have that much time. I was dying, physically. Even though I knew that collectively the three of us could have sued the state for $60 million, I also knew I could have been stabbed to death in prison for fifty dollars any day of the week. I knew that one way or another I would never live to see the outside of those walls, not without taking this deal.”  

Though after his release he wanted at first to distance himself from the case, Damien and his wife, Lorri Davis, now hope the book and a forthcoming film, West of Memphis (their own documentary, produced with Jackson), will keep enough pressure on the Arkansas courts that in time he will be fully exonerated. “Right now they have what they want, which is attention dying away from the case,” Damien says. “What we want is to keep people focused on it, so they feel pressured to do what’s right: arrest the person who they know did this and clear our names. When we started making this movie, the judge had just turned us down after we asked him to please hear new DNA evidence. So Peter Jackson says, ‘Well, if we can’t get the courts to hear it, at least we can show the rest of the world what they’re refusing to see.’”

Just how bad life on death row became is covered in impressive detail in Life After Death, the bulk of which Damien composed during the 18 years he spent behind bars, ten of them in solitary confinement. “Writing saved my sanity in a lot of ways in that place,” he says. “I shut out a lot of this horrible world I was living in, and I could create something that was much richer, that was emotional and psychological food for myself. You’re in this place with thousands of murderers, rapists, child abusers, schizophrenics, people who are mentally damaged and deranged in ways that most people will never come in contact with. So there is nothing in there to feed you at all—it feels like something in you is starving to death.”

Starvation was also a physical ailment for Damien, one that he says nearly killed him in prison. looking back at his release, in August 2011, he describes his appearance at that time as “like a walking corpse.” Since then he’s gained 60 pounds, due simply to adequate nutrition and the ability to exercise. His psyche seems to have found nourishment as well. when speaking he radiates an aura of health and healing, and it’s easy to see how some have come to regard him as a spiritual leader. “Going through that experience makes you realize how short your life really is. I spent almost two decades in there— that’s nearly twenty years, gone forever. I don’t want anything in my life that’s not absolutely otherworldly or absolutely magical.”

Today he looks forward to expanding his art, particularly in the realm of perfor- mance. “I think art is the purest form of magic in the physical world,” he says, “because it changes perceptions and everything inside a person. It can give you an epiphany, and that’s what I want to do with art. With performance art, you yourself become the artwork, and that’s what I love. That’s magic: turning life into art. And you have to constantly search for ways to do it in every single aspect of yourself. That’s what I do with tattooing, it’s an act of transformation. It’s the same thing with weightlifting. It’s changing my body in some way where I’m always becoming something one step beyond what I was last week or last month. I have this need that gnaws at me to constantly feel like I’m progressing. If I can’t lift five more pounds than I could last week, then I think, what’s the point of this? If I can’t take something one step beyond what I did the last time, I feel like I’m wasting my life.”

Damien and Lorri are planning to move to Salem, Massachussetts. “I saw a T-shirt there that embodies what I’m looking for,” he says. “It’s a joke, and it says ‘Salem witches Protection Program.’ Perfect!” Indeed the history of their chosen hometown-to-be bears a certain poetic symmetry with the trial Damien endured. “I’ve thought of that place for years, even while I was in prison. I thought about how great it would be to live in a place with that much tolerance and open-mindedness. I don’t think there will be any sort of mass enlightenment that will reach places like West Memphis, Arkansas. Most of the world doesn’t want magic or individuality or anything unique. They try to hammer everything and everyone into these horrible little bland, suburban patterns. You have to fight like hell to escape it and find other people who want to escape it, and when you find those people you have to treat them like a rare and valuable treasure…because that’s what they are.”

Perhaps his forthcoming projects will help Damien to work through this painful chapter of his life, but he doesn’t imagine he’ll be able to put the case behind him anytime soon. “For me, it’s not over,” he says. “I don’t know if it ever will be, whether in the legal system or even the emotional and psychological impact of it. But I hope that people see [my story] and that it makes them wake up a little, that it makes them want to take control of their own lives, that it does the same thing to them that it does for me. It should make you realize how short and how precious life is. If anything were to come of this that I want, it would be for people to see the story and decide that they want a more magical life.”

Life After Death is out September 18th from Blue Rider Press/Penguin  

EXTRA CREDITS

HAIR AKKI  GROOMING HANNAH MURRAY FOR TOPSHOP MANICURE BERNADETTE THOMPSON (THE WALL GROUP)  SET DESIGN STEFAN BECKMAN (EXPOSURE NY) DIGITAL CAPTURE DTOUCH NYC  PHOTO ASSISTANTS ANTONI CIUFO AND ANYKA ASIN  STYLIST ASSISTANTS LINDSEY HORNYAK, RASAAN WYZARD, OLIVIA KOZLOWSKI HAIR ASSISTANT REONA DEN  GROOMING ASSISTANT JENNIFER LOMBARDO  SET DESIGN ASSISTANTS FLETCHER CHANCEY AND KELSEY HALL  RETOUCHING IMAG’IN PRODUCTIONS PARIS LOCATION TEN TON STUDIOS, BROOKLYN   SPECIAL THANKS JEN DENIKE AND LORRI DAVIS 

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GREG K\'S TIFF REPORT PART 4 THE VIDEO: I\'M OUT DAN STEVENS
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