For Lorri Davis and Damien Echols, putting pen to paper opened the door to a world they created for themselves, a world where they could literally write their own love story even though their lives couldn't have been further apart. At just 18, Echols was sentenced to death in Arkansas as part of the infamous West Memphis Three case, in which he and two other teenagers were wrongfully convicted of the murders of three boys. She was a landscape architect in New York City compelled to write him after she saw his story in the documentary Paradise Lost.
Moved by the film, Davis, who was raised in the South likes Echols, saw him as a kindred outsider spirit, and wrote him a letter of support in April 1996. Over the next 16 years, they wrote each other over 5,000 letters, some of which are now the subject of their new book Yours for Eternity: A Love Story on Death Row. The couple says it was a painful, but cathartic process selecting the letters for the book which tells their story in intimate detail from falling in love to the months before Echols' release in 2011.
Now married for 15 years, Echols and Davis are starting a new chapter, moving into a new home in Harlem, New York. They took a break from their move to talk to Bio about their love story in letters and how they hope it will help raise awareness about the wrongfully convicted.
The book is an extremely intimate glimpse into your relationship. What made you decide to share your letters with the world?
Damien: I think because it gives us a sense of closure. This is the last aspect of that time of our lives that we haven’t opened up for inspection yet. If you want to know about the case, there are four documentaries out. If you want to know my life story there is [my memoir] Life After Death. It’s like this is the last aspect of that period of our lives that hasn’t been explored yet and we just wanted to have that sense of closure.
Damien, I imagine you received a lot of mail in jail. What was it about Lorri’s letter that made you write her back?
Damien: I knew from the very first letter that this was someone completely unlike anyone I had ever known. She would see things that I guess everyone else would look at as mundane everyday things, but the way she saw them made them seem magical, the opposite of mundane, and it made me want to be able to see the world that way, to see the world through her eyes, to be a little more like her, I guess. No one had done that before.
You were from completely different worlds. How was it possible for you to find such an amazing connection?
Lorri: That was one of the reasons why I continued writing to him. He’s so inquisitive and so intelligent. To quote what he just said, he was unlike anyone I had ever met – the things he was interested in, the things he had studied or wanted to study. It was kind of like we created this world together of magical things that we wanted to talk about, and learn about and discuss with each other. So the differences didn’t matter.
Damien: I think in most people’s relationships it’s their similarities that cause them to bond and in ours it was the opposite – it was our differences, our alien-ness to each other that kept us interested and made us want more.
What was it like to be in love during that period of Damien’s incarceration?
Lorri: I liken it to being haunted in a way. It felt like he was with me all of the time. I felt like I could hear him talking to me. I felt him with me. And when we were in each other’s presence, it was the best time of my life.
Damien: When I was I in prison, I don’t think I ever thought of our lives together as something that would happen at some point in the future. We always saw our lives as being together right here, right now. Sometimes the prison would be the last thing I would think about because I was so involved in what we were doing, what we were talking about, the world that we were creating together.
And what are your memories of your marriage?
Lorri: It was overwhelming for both of us, more so for Damien. I just remember I could feel his nervousness. He hadn’t been touched by anyone else in like six years, and the first time that happened, he was getting married. So I felt protective of him, but also so excited to be marrying him. It was a huge milestone in our relationship because of the seriousness and the commitment of it.
Damien: As far as I know, it's the only Buddhist wedding ceremony in the history of the Arkansas prison system. It was a very brief event and then we both went right back to what we were doing before – Lorri trying to get me out of prison and me trying to survive another day in prison.
"What we try to do is share our story. Most people think my case is out of the ordinary. They don’t understand that it happens all the time to people everywhere. " − Damien Echols
What was life like when you were released?
Damien: I think I was in shock. I was in trauma. I hadn’t slept or eaten for a week before I got out of prison. I literally went from nearly a decade of solitary confinement to suddenly finding myself pushed back out into the world. And it shatters you psychologically. I had been out for probably a year before I could even start to put myself back together again or function normally. I had to have someone with me all of the time taking care of me almost like an invalid.
Can you talk about your work advocating for prisoners’ rights?
Damien: We talk at law schools, criminal justice classes, journalism classes, and we also work on death penalty rights. What we try to do is share our story. Most people think my case is out of the ordinary. They don’t understand that it happens all the time to people everywhere.
When it comes to individual cases, the only individual case that we want to work on right now and help with is Amanda Knox who has become a friend of ours. We want to do anything we can to help her. We believe she was a victim of the same mentality that ended with me being sentenced to death.
Now you see each other every day now. No glass wall separating you. No need to wait for a letter to arrive. Does it seem surreal?
Lorri: It’s been almost three years since Damien was released, and I think going through that shock and trauma of him getting out so suddenly was difficult and trying, and I think we’re finally getting to the place where we’re beginning to figure out where we fit in the world. We feel really good about moving back to New York. We’re really looking forward to it especially in our new home.