Dawn Scott speaking with Damien Echols in Salem, Mass. (Photo: John Young, THV11)
SALEM, Mass. (KTHV) - Twenty years ago, Damien Echols was living in West Memphis, Arkansas. He was an 18-year-old "goth" kid who was seen as an outcast from other kids his age. His life drastically changed when he and two other teens were arrested, charged, tried, and found guilty in the horrific deaths of three eight-year-old boys.
Twenty years ago, Echols never would have imagined his life would be the way it is now. After spending 18 years in solitary confinement, the 38-year-old is living in Salem, Massachusetts, a place geographically and ideologically far away from West Memphis.
"This is actually the very first place I looked at," Echols said. "And we automatically fell in love with this place from the first time we saw it."
He and his wife, Lorri Davis, are living in the small New England town most famously known for its famous with trials in the 1600s. For Echols, the town now filled with diverse lifestyles is something he can relate to.
"I do (relate to this area)," Echols explained. "Just the level of persecution; they sentenced me to death- and it was the exact same thing. They accused me of being a Satanist, of committing human sacrifices and all these things which were the exact same things as the people back then. Fortunately they weren't able to kill me like they were the people they hung here."
Echols and Davis moved to Salem last fall, a year after Echols walked off Arkansas's Death Row, when he submitted a rare legal agreement called an Alford plea. He hasn't returned to the area since then.
Echols is guilty by law of killing three West Memphis eight-year-old boys - Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. He and two other then-teenagers, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were found guilty of their killings. But, Echols fiercely maintains his innocence and says there isn't a day that passes in which he isn't reminded of their murders.
"I believe with all my heart they knew we were innocent and they didn't care," Echols says now. "I think they knew they had the wrong people and I think they would have rather executed me and allowed a murderer to walk the streets than to have to come back and admit they screwed up."
That fact alone kept Echols angry and bitter for the first several years on death row.
"I knew I had to do something with that. I had to find a way to deal with it, just because it eats you alive - it eats at your heart."
While on death row, Echols started practicing meditation and met a Buddhist spiritual adviser who taught him a practice called Reiki, a Japanese technique similar to acupuncture that works with the body's natural energy.
"This is done entirely through touch, through breathing and through visualization techniques," Echols explained.
Echols is now a Reiki practitioner and operates a healing studio in the heart of downtown Salem. He is also a tattoo artist and has a waiting list of 400 people who want to get tattoos from him.
In addition to his business endeavors, he's working on his relationships, in particularly with his 20-year-old son, Seth. The two have spoken and visited several times since Echols' release from prison in 2011.
While Echols is adjusting to a new life of freedom and opportunities, he says it is still a struggle living with his past.
"It's not like you can ever just say 'I'm not on death row anymore' or X that out (and say) 'this is my new life."
It's never lost on the convicted killer that everything that has happened over the last 20 years has brought him to where he is now.
"Whenever you look back at my life, whenever I look back at my life, I can see every single thing forming a chain that brought me to where I am now," Echols said. "And if you take out one single link in that chain, I'd be dead right now."