WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — Former death row inmate Damien Echols of the infamous West Memphis Three case is on a mission to clear his name.
But more than 10 years after he left a prison cell, Echols says he’s still not free. His legal team filed a motion in Crittenden County Court, asking a judge to allow a California lab to test evidence using a new DNA testing system he hopes will prove his innocence.
He talked to WREG’s Stephanie Scurlock exclusively about why now is the time to bring this case back into the spotlight.
“Well I want my name cleared, and I’m sure Jason and Jesse feel the same way ,and I would also like to see the person who actually committed these crimes as well as almost cost me my life tried for that,” Echols said from his home in New Orleans.
He and his wife, Lorri, moved there from New York during the pandemic.
One of the reasons we stepped away from working on the case for so long is because it’s not pleasant to be reminded of this over and over. :40 to have to rehash the most traumatizing thing that’s ever been done to you in your life over and over and over on a daily basis.
In 1993, police arrested 18-year-old Echols, 17-year-old Jesse Misskelly and 16-year-old Jason Baldwin for the murders of three 8-year-old boys — Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch.
The children’s bodies were found naked and hog-tied in a ditch in a wooded area of West Memphis. The teens were convicted during trials the next year.
Scurlock followed the case from start to finish, even visiting Echols on death row as he fought for an appeal. She also was there at their release 18 years later, when defense lawyers showed no forensic evidence linking the three to the crime scene.
A judge threw out the case and prosecutors decided not to try them again. The condition was that they enter Alford pleas, where they maintained their innocence but were still considered guilty of the crime.
“We thought getting out was like the finish line. It’s like where things end. From that point on you’re living happily ever after,” Echols said. “We didn’t realize, like, the amount of psychological and emotional trauma that I was going to go through from getting out.”
Echols said he just got his driver’s license a few weeks ago. Lately he’s been focused on learning how to drive from place to place.
Echols now wants that Alford plea reversed and the crime wiped from his record. He says prosecutors who once promised to allow more evidence testing are now setting up roadblocks.
“They said, ‘We’ll do anything. If you want to do more testing in the future whatever it is, we’re fine with that,” Echols said, then continued, “when it comes time to actually do it, to produce the evidence, we hear, ‘Well it’s been destroyed in a fire.’”
The claims of fire turned out not to be true. His attorneys got a court order to search the West Memphis Police Department evidence room and found the boxes they were looking for.
“Every single piece of it was right there. Nothing had been destroyed. It was all accounted for and cataloged,” he said.
Echols wants a California lab to use new technology that suctions out DNA from the evidence. He wants the shoestrings that were used to tie up the children tested first.
“The only person whose DNA would be in that ligature is the person who tied the knots,” he said.
Echols’ legal team says prosecutors are blocking that, too.
“Now that we’re asking to test it, now that it’s been found, now that we know they were lying when they said it was destroyed, now they don’t want to go through with the testing. Now they’re fighting it,” Echols said.
“Why do you think they would say there had been a building fire and the evidence was lost when in fact it was not?” he continued.
He said he could only see one reason.
“They do not want the truth to come out,” he said. “Maybe they know what the truth is and they’re trying really hard to keep that covered up, or it could be just the fact that a lot of people have built political careers for themselves off this case. … I mean, this has been the foundation that a lot of these people have built their livelihoods on and they don’t want to have to admit that it was all fraud.”
If the judge allows them to test the evidence, it will be up to Echols to pay for it.
He said there are so many people interested in finding out the truth, he doesn’t believe it will be a problem raising the money.
The mayor of West Memphis said this has been like a dark cloud hanging over the city for years, and he wants the truth — whatever that is.
Mayor Marco McClendon said if a judge tells them to hand over the evidence, they are ready to do it.
The prosecuting attorney did not return a phone call.