‘I Had The Best Cell On Death Row’: Life In The Shadow Of Execution

‘I Had The Best Cell On Death Row’: Life In The Shadow Of Execution

In 1994, Damien Echols and two of his friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were wrongfully convicted in what prosecutors called a satanic ritual murder of three 8-year-old boys. Echols, the leader of the group, was sentenced to death; Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences. The trio became known as the West Memphis Three, and their cause was taken up by the likes of Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder. In August 2011, they were released under a legally awkward plea deal. Echols wrote a book about his experience, Life After Death, which is available on Amazon and which we’ve excerpted here.

* * *

I have the shape of a dead man on the wall of my cell. It was left behind by the last occupant. He stood against the wall and traced around himself with a pencil, then shaded it in. It looks like a very faint shadow, and it’s barely noticeable until you see it. It took me nearly a week to notice it for the first time, but once you see it you can’t un-see it. I find myself lying on my bunk and looking at it several times a day. It just seems to draw the eyes like a magnet.

God only knows what possessed him to do such a thing, but I can’t bring myself to wash it off. Since they executed him, it’s the only trace of him left. He’s been in his grave almost five years now, yet his shadow still lingers. He was no one and nothing. All that remains of him is a handful of old rape charges and a man-shaped pencil sketch. Perhaps it’s just superstition, but I can’t help but feel that erasing it would be like erasing the fact that he ever existed. That may not be such a bad thing, all things considered, but I won’t be the one to do it.

At one point I entertained thoughts that perhaps the living inmates weren’t the only ones trapped on Death Row. After all, if places really are haunted, then wouldn’t Death Row be the perfect stomping ground? At some time or another it’s crossed the mind of everyone here. Some make jokes about it, like whistling to yourself as you pass the cemetery. Others don’t like to speak about it at all, and it can be a touchy subject. Who wants to think about the fact that you’re sleeping on the mattress that three or four executed men also claimed as their resting place? Imagine looking into the mirror every day and wondering how many dead men had looked at their own reflections in it. When anything odd happens, some men blame whoever was executed last.

Once for a period of several months at Tucker Maximum Security, I had the privilege of having an entire floor of the Death Row barracks to myself. Recent executions had opened up cells on the first two floors, so the guards thought it a good idea to move people from the third floor down to the first and second, to fill the empty slots. They were hoping to be able to get out of walking up to the third floor altogether. The problem was that they were one short, so I was the only one to be left up there with another 17 empty cells. There were a lot of benefits to the situation, so I didn’t complain. For one thing, I had a television all to myself. No arguing about what to watch. I also had my own phone, and no longer had to wait for anyone else to get off it. There was no one above me to stomp on the floor and annoy me, and no one next to me.

* * *
I could sit in meditation for as long as I liked without fear of interruption. I was up high enough in the air that I could look out of my slit of a window and see a field of horses. I used to watch them playing for hours at a time. Even better than the horses was the field itself, especially when it snowed during the winter. Looking at that snowy field and a ring of leafless, grey trees made my heart ache like you can’t believe. Nothing makes me wail with heartache and homesickness more than the winter. Sometimes the cold wind feels like it’s blowing right through a hole in my chest. It hurts, folks. It hurts like hell and reminds me of how long I’ve been here.

I did have a tiny cellmate for a short time — a little white-haired, blue-eyed kitten. I don’t believe she was even old enough to be away from her mother yet, as you could cradle her in the palm of one hand. I’ve absolutely no idea where she originally came from or where she eventually went, but she was being passed around so the guards wouldn’t find her. When it was time for her to be passed on she’d be placed in a stocking cap and sent down the line.

The kitty didn’t seem to want to do anything but sleep. The problem was that she was much like a fussy baby and wanted to be held as she slept. She would lie on your chest, curled into a small white ball, and sleep forever. The moment you put her down, the tiny blue eyes would pop open and she would begin to give voice to her outrage. Tiny but high-pitched meows could soon be heard from a considerable distance. It was amazing that such a minuscule creature could be heard from so far away. Perhaps it was the fact that the sound was so alien to the environment. No amount of talk would console her. “Shhh! Hush, you little monster, or they shall discover our plot.” She paid no heed to my warnings.

Her only other fault was that a steady diet of tuna and milk caused her to leave long, brown kitty puddles on the floor. She knew herself to be the queen of Death Row and had no doubt that it was my honour and privilege to clean up after her. Once my tour of duty came to an end she went on to her next residence and I never saw her again.

* * *
The kitten wasn’t the only pet to ever be kept on Death Row. The most common are mice and rats, but I’ve also seen spiders, a couple snakes, and even a bird. The mice and rats were bred for the purpose of serving as pets. A guy would manage to catch two wild ones, and every time a litter was born he’d give the babies out to whoever wanted one. They grow up with you and won’t bite or scratch. The snakes would wander into the yard and suddenly find themselves stuffed into someone’s pants and smuggled indoors. The biggest rat I’ve ever seen in my life was raised by a guy here. It was as big as a Chihuahua, and he even fashioned a collar for it. It was as tame as any household pet and slept in the same bed as the guy who had trained it.

His pet rat was not the only thing that made the prisoner seem out of the ordinary. He was nicknamed “Butterfly,” even though calling him that made him angry enough to strangle someone. This name spread like wildfire, along with the rumour that had started it. It was said that this gentleman had a giant tattoo of a butterfly on his rear end — one wing tattooed on each cheek — and that by doing a certain dance he could make it appear as if the butterfly were flapping its wings. As revolting as the thought was, it was still fodder for a great deal of humour. The only one not laughing was Butterfly.

The bird belonged to a prisoner I knew named Earl. Earl had gotten his pet bird from the yard. Every year when the weather begins to turn warm the birds build nests and lay eggs in the razor wire surrounding the yard. Inevitably, baby birds will tumble out. Earl smuggled one in and kept it in his cell. You would hear it every morning before sunrise, chirp-chirp-chirping like mad. This would be met with a volley of curses from the prisoners it had awakened.

Earl was an interesting character. He was about 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed about 160 pounds. His hair had turned prematurely grey. Earl never cracked a joke and spoke only if he had something important to say or a question to ask. He never raised his voice or argued with anyone. Earl was on Death Row but had never actually killed anyone. He had escaped from prison with another guy, and the other guy had shot and killed someone. Since Earl had been with him, they were both given the death penalty. I believe he was one of the few people here with enough intelligence to comprehend the full horror of his predicament. When they set an execution date for him he became violently ill and couldn’t keep anything in his stomach until they killed him. For some reason Earl haunts me more than anyone else they’ve killed. Perhaps it’s because I knew that, like me, he hadn’t taken anyone’s life.

They led Earl out to the Death House with the guy who had actually done the shooting. They were both executed at the same time. As they took them out I was standing at my cell door to say good-bye. It was four o’clock in the morning. The other guy passed me first, and he was chewing a piece of gum as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He nodded in my direction and uttered a nonchalant “Catch you later.” I nodded back to him. When Earl came down next there were tears in his eyes. He struggled to keep his voice under control. “Damien,” he said, and nodded once. “Earl,” I said, and returned the nod.

The guards later said he couldn’t even finish his last meal, because he was continuously vomiting. Now, years later, I still feel something in my stomach turn over every time I think of him. He left me nearly everything he owned before he was executed — his books, a leather belt, all his drawing pens, and some origami paper. I couldn’t keep them, because it bothered me too much. I gave everything away.

You can follow Damien Echols on Twitter @damienechols.