A Death Row Love Story: Lorri Davis On Her Relationship With Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three

Months after Lorri and Damien began corresponding, they fell in love. They were married in 1999 while Damien was still in prison.

Oct 24, 2012 at 4:00pm | Leave a comment

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The prison charged 5 dollars for each Polaroid.

In 1993, in West Memphis, Arkansas 3 young boys were murdered. In 1994, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, who would come to be known as the West Memphis Three, were convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison, based largely on the state's belief that the murders were part of a Satanic ritual. Damien Echols was sentenced to death. In August of last year, the three were released on Alford Pleas, which allowed them to maintain their innocence but acknowledge the state's conviction.

In the years in between, many people (including celebrities like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder) worked to get the boys released, inspired by a series of HBO documentaries on the case, beginning with the 1996 film "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." Lorri Davis, at the time a New Yorker with a job at an architect firm, was one of the first to see the film and to begin corresponding with Damien. Months after they began corresponding, they fell in love. They were married in 1999 while Damien was still in prison. It was largely due to Lorri's efforts that Damien was released in 2011.

Now, 15 years after they first "met," they are finally living together in Salem, Massachusetts, where they just bought a house. They plan to settle in just as soon as they finish promoting Damien's new autobiography, "Life After Death" and the upcoming Peter Jackson documentary "West of Memphis." I got on the phone with Lorri last Sunday afternoon to talk about their incredible love story. 

When did you first become aware of Damien?

L: When I saw "Paradise Lost," I was living in New York and I saw it at MOMA at the New Films/New Directors Series in February of 1996. I didn't even really want to see the film, to be quite honest. I like documentaries, just not true crime. The film had only screened at Sundance, and then it screened at that festival, so that was the second time it was screened. And I contacted him maybe two or three weeks after that.

What compelled you to write to him?

L: I'm from the South, too, so I completely understood what was happening down there. And there was just something about Damien. I used to be argumentative and outspoken and he was like that as a teenager, so I kind of related to him. He was just in such a horrible predicament with seemingly no support around him. But he just seemed like he had an intelligence about him, and I just wanted to reach out and help him.

So was there any kind of romantic motivation?

L:  No, not at all! It wasn't his finest hour, during that time. So that wasn’t something I was particularly attracted to. But I did feel for him a great deal. I felt a kinship to him and I thought that he was someone that I would like, someone that was an interesting person. 

What did that first letter say?

L: I just told him I'd seen him in the film and that I didn't believe he was guilty, and that if there was anything that I could do to help him, just to let me know. And he never asked for help; it took until after we were married for us to even start talking about money, or anything like that. But I started sending him books because I just thought he might be interested in reading some of the things I've read.

Two of the first books I sent him were  "The Master and Margarita" and "Franny & Zooey." Even now, he just wouldn’t have the patience for it, but he read them. I only found out later he didn't like them. He ended up reading probably most everything I’ve ever read, but we have really different tastes in literature. It did enable us to get to know each other. It was really how we got to know each other, through books and, of course, letters.

You two really come from different worlds. Damien grew up in total poverty.

L: Yeah, that's really the truth. I grew up in West Virginia, so I understand the Southern culture. It's really kind of a sister city to Arkansas. But our tastes and all those things are very different. Although, when it came down to actually living with each other and starting to put the house together, I was really happy to see that our tastes and our aesthetics are very similar. Paint colors, and the fact that we both love this old house.

He's very good at decorating, much better than I am. He's never done anything like this before. He certainly couldn't do anything in his cell. And before he went in prison, he was a teenager, so he barely had a home, let alone decorated it. It's real fun to see what he comes up with. He goes out and about and finds things and brings them home and I’m like, "Wow, this is beautiful."

At what point did your correspondence actually start to turn romantic?

It really wasn't that long after we first started writing, maybe a month. We wrote a whole lot. So we covered a lot of ground. We wrote every day, and each letter was several pages. It got to the point where both of us kept a constant string of writing, so there was always a letter going, and at the end of the day when the mail came you'd just look at what you had done and put it in the mailbox. And then you’d get started on the next one. That’s what we did for years.

When did you know that you were really starting to fall in love? 

L: It got to a point, not long after we started writing, that I found myself so distracted in every aspect of my life, and really interested in the next thing he had to say or what we were writing about. And it just took over all of my attention and my mind and it was wonderful. I mean I hated it, of course, that he was in prison. That was painful. But it was really quite a wonderful way to get to know someone. And also there’s something about getting to know someone over distance. I think people do it now all the time now, with the Internet. But with letters I tend to think it's a little bit more romantic because you actually have to wait for the answer. There's something about that element that's kind of nice and maddening at the same time.

Did you question yourself to fall in love with a Death Row inmate? Were you thinking, "This is crazy"?

L: I never really thought that way. I mean I know what people think, somewhere in my mind. But I didn’t question myself. I've always gone into things in my life just thinking, “I'm going to do this, and I don't care what anyone says or thinks,” and it's just the way it's been. My friends were all really supportive of me, too. I think they probably were worried and concerned about me but they never came out and said that.

What about your family? How did they react?

L: I didn't tell them for four years. I lived in Little Rock for two years before I told anyone the reason that I was there. Once we decided we were going to get married, and it became clear that I was going to start working on his case in a really serious way, that's when I told my family. My parents are very conservative and they're lovely, sweet people and I’m really close to them and love them very much, but I knew that it was going to be hard for them, and it was.

There had been so many times in their lives that I confronted them with, you know -- "I’m going to London" -- and then they'd be like "Well, how are you going to--" and I'd say, "I don't know!" So they were used to that, but I think this one really threw them. But after about a year, they came down and visited Damien and fell in love with him. And they would come visit him every year, sometimes a couple of times a year.

Did you guard the information from peripheral people in your life who might judge?

L:  I was always very careful about that because, you know, it was a very personal thing. For the longest time, I said, "Well, Damien, I just don't want anyone to know who I am, I want to be in the background for as much as possible." But there came a time when that just wasn't possible anymore. Once we made the decision to start doing media and being more vocal about his case, there needed to be someone to speak for him, and it kind of had to be me. 

What was that first visit like? 

L: That was pretty emotional. I didn’t even have the slightest idea what to expect. No one knew I was going except my close friends. I had to be at the prison at eight o clock in the morning, and I flew in the night before, and I didn’t sleep at all. I’d never been in a prison and this was a maximum security prison, so it was very, scary and nervewracking. And Damien was so skinny. He weighed about 116 pounds when I first met him. He was startlingly beautiful -- his face. He’s just a handsome, beautiful man. But he’d been through a lot. We just had the nicest visit.

Do you remember what you wore?

L: Yeah, it was really simple. I wore a pair of really dark blue cigarette pants and a black wool sweater with three quarter length sleeves and Doc Martens. He hated those, too, but he didn’t tell me for a long time.

What was it like actually maintaining your relationship before you got married and were able to have contact?

L: That was hard because we had glass between us for the first four years, so it was just nothing but deprivation. It’s just being in physical deprivation and emotional depravation and it was hard. And it was sad. Thinking back on it, sometimes I just wonder how we got through that part of it. After we got married, we had contact visits and those were certainly better, but you’re still guarded, you still have people watching you. So it's not like you have any privacy, but we could actually sit in a room together and talk and every now and then hold hands or kiss. 

I really can’t imagine four years without even being able to kiss one another.

L: Yeah. I can’t either now. I look back on it and I think, “How did I do it?” I don’t know how I did 16 years of this stuff. But when you’re in the middle of it, you’re not thinking in that way. You just keep going, you just keep moving. We would always try to find different ways to stay connected to each other, like mediation and energy work.

What made you decide to get married?

L: I really wasn’t interested in marriage much in my life. I was married before, to the wrong guy. I mean I’m still friends with him, but I just kind of thought it wasn’t for me. But then, we were really in love with each other and that's completely what I wanted. Everything just kind of flowed.

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What was your wedding like?

It was nice. We could invite six people and we had a Buddhist wedding. And my -- what’s called a dharma teacher who led the meditation that I went to -- married us and it was really sweet. And we wrote our own service and did lots of bowing and lots of hugging and lots of kissing. And that was good because the prison had ruled about how many times you could kiss during a ceremony, but we did a whole lot more and made it look like the ceremony was supposed to be this way. And it was only supposed to last 20 minutes or something and ours ended up lasting an hour. 

What was it like to touch for the first time?

L: Oh, I can’t even describe it. It was wonderful. But I wish I would’ve understood a little bit more about PTSD and how it affects people, because Damien was really affected in that way. It was a great deal of stress on him. He almost passed out at one point. He hadn’t touched anyone in seven years! I look back on it now, and knowing what he’s been through in the last year, I think, “Oh, God, that’s what that was all about.” It’s just different than most people who have led normal lives react to things, and I just didn’t understand it. Our wedding was probably very stressful for him. I know it was.

Were you able to consummate your marriage?

L: No, no. I got to spend some time with him. And then we had a reception at a friend’s house. And that was sad, because he wasn’t there.

What was the daily maintenance of your relationship like?

We talked every day. Most of the time we started out each morning. And the phone calls were 15 minutes long and they were very expensive, so we had to be very disciplined about how many times we talked, but almost always we talked more than once. And then it finally got to a point where I had to schedule and budget how many times we could talk in a week without completely devastating my bank account. My phone bills were $500 a month and those were just his calls.

We saw each other once a week for three hours. And we wrote every day. We were never really alone. We could be in a room together but there would be other people visiting there. There would be times when no one else was visiting and then a guard would walk through every now and then, and those were nice, but it was very seldom that we were completely alone together. 

Did you ever lose hope that Damien would get out of prison?

L: I never lost hope. And I never lost the absolute certainty that he was going to get out. What I lost sometimes was just strength. Over all those years. I never thought it would take as long as it did.

What was that first night that you spent alone together after Damien's release like?

L: It was surreal. Neither one of us really had any time to prepare because he got out so quickly. It wasn’t like what we all had expected -- that there would be a trial and we would have time to prepare. He was not physically very well, just because of the stress he had been under the previous week, thinking, “Maybe I’m not going to get out, maybe it's not going to work." And I had spent the entire week before he got out just trying to prepare to leave forever and never come back. So by the time it actually happened, we were just so tired and exhausted. It wasn’t anything like we expected.

How did you feel when you found out that he was getting out?

L:  I went into shock. So I don’t really remember. I remember hearing the lawyer tell me, “He could get out on Monday,” and that was on Saturday. Everything in me just shut down and I just couldn’t believe it and then everything after that was just motion. You have to get this done, you have to do that, you have to take care of this. We were in complete disbelief. Even to this day there are moments where I can’t believe he’s here.

What has it been like to adjust to having a daily physical relationship? 

L: I think what no one expected -- and some people still don’t understand -- is what it’s like dealing with someone who has been held in a cell for the last 10 years. You really couldn’t control much in prison, but Damien was very dignified in the way he handled himself. And he owned his space -- what little space he had in his life. I had a great deal of admiration for the man that he was in prison. I expected that man to walk out of prison and be the same man, and how could that possibly be the case?

He had a great deal of knowledge about many many things that he’d learned about -- I mean Damien completely exhausted pretty much every topic --  but it was all in his head, and he didn’t have practical knowledge of anything. So that, I wasn’t prepared for. And it took about six months for me to finally have this jarring epiphany that he isn’t capable of taking care of me or himself right now, and he’s struggling every day. We’re in New York City and he’s scared to death. He doesn’t understand a lot of things, he doesn’t know how to do most things, and he has to learn to live in this world.

And once I had that realization, everything changed. And everything got so much softer and lighter and sweeter between us, because I realized he just needs some time. And you know what? He’s out here, and I’ll give him all the time in the world. So from then on, it’s just been a whole lot easier for us. He’s gained some weight and he let his hair grow out. It’s really nice to see him healthy and to see what he looks like out here in the real world and wearing what he wants to wear.

We both have a long way to go and a lot of healing to do and a lot of just trying to find a place in the world to live and do and work. It's pretty great having him here. I'm looking forward to some rest.