Sunday, December 23, 2007

Death Row Wedding by John Brummett

Death Row Wedding
Second in a two-part series
This article was published on Saturday, December 22, 2007 9:10 PM CST in Columns
By John Brummett
Women in a book club in Little Rock were talking about what they might read next. One suggested Mara Leveritt's "Devil's Knot" because Damien Echols and that West Memphis case fascinated her.

There was an odd quiet.

Later, during kitchen cleanup, someone mentioned to the woman who had made the suggestion that one of their club members, that perfectly charming Lorri Davis, the landscape architect from New York City, was Damien Echols' wife.

You just don't tend to think that the woman next to you at the book club is married to a convicted child murderer.

You cannot begin to tell Echols' story without mentioning his wife of eight years, even as the woman clings tenaciously to a low profile.

"She doesn't want to become a freak show, the crazy woman married to a Death Row inmate," Echols told me in a two-hour interview on that very Death Row last week.

Davis was living in New York City in 1995 when she got invited to an art house for an advance showing of "Paradise Lost." That's the HBO documentary about the hysteria in West Memphis over that supposed satanic ritual that led to Echols and two other outcast teenagers getting convicted in the torture and killing of three little boys in 1993.

The story moved her. She wrote Echols and enclosed a red thread she'd found on a New York City sidewalk, calling it a symbol of human connection.

Echols had been on Death Row for more than a year. He said he'd given up and was ready to die. But he said he knew instantly that this woman was communicating with him "in a way that was totally new to me -- that I'd been searching for."

He wrote back. She responded. Then she wrote that she was coming to see him.

"I was in love with her already," he said. Was he nervous? "Scared to death."

She moved to Little Rock and began coming to see him every week, visiting through this very kind of glass.

"We couldn't touch," he said. "We'd each pull a hair out and give it to each other. We'd lean down to the screen and blow, to share our breath."

After four years of touchless courtship, "I'm pretty sure we had the only Buddhist wedding ceremony in the history of Arkansas Death Row," he said.

This political movement to get him freed, all this legal research, this public relations campaign, all these celebrities who have come to Echols' aid -- Lorri Davis has done that.

"These have been the happiest 12 years of my life," Echols said.

When I burst out laughing at the very idea of Death Row being better than childhood, he laughed, too.

Echols has a son, 14-year-old Seth, by a teenage girlfriend. The boy lives in Arizona and comes to visit maybe once a year.

Echols told me: "When he was 10 or 11, he was into rap and he said, 'I'm a pimp.' I said, 'No, you're not. If I'd wanted a black child, I'd have adopted one from Africa. Pull your pants up and quit talking like that.' I don't want him turning out like me."

Did he mean that he didn't want his kid winding up on Death Row on a highly controversial conviction?

"No, I don't want him to be a dropout, considered weird by his style and taste in music (Metallica, in Echols' case)," he said.

What if a governor commuted his death sentence to life in prison?

"That would be worse than meaningless," Echols said. "If you're going to do that, just kill me now instead of doing it slowly."

Echols seems uncommonly bright. He is remarkably self-educated. He is thoughtful, if, at times, still a bit of the smart-aleck. He is strikingly articulate, save his one "I had saw" comment.

Is it possible that Echols was such a bizarre creature at 18 that he committed this crime? Yes, I guess it's possible. But the authorities didn't make the case. And there was a mad rush to frenzied, predisposed judgment.

The thought never occurred to me over a two-hour interview that I was inches from a child murderer. I wanted to shake his hand upon leaving, but, of course, couldn't.

John Brummett is a columnist and reporter for Stephens Media in Little Rock.

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