In a Harlem residence strewn with crystal swords, Tarot playing cards, and wands made from deer bone, Damien Echols and Lorri Davis put together to carry out a ritual from an occult custom known as the Golden Dawn.
It’s a non secular apply that Damien carried out daily whereas confined to a 12ft by 9ft cell on Arkansas’ dying row, wrongfully convicted of a triple youngster homicide.
Wearing black bathrobes, they sit going through one another on an oriental rug, tattooed wrists pressed collectively. Taking sluggish breaths, they “circulate energy” – a apply Damien calls “a light form of sex magick.”
Their 3 rescue cats watch intently from the sofa.
Damien stands going through east, Lorri seated by his toes, and attracts a pentagram within the air. With 2 fingers, he stabs the invisible pentagram’s middle, exhales, and buckles over as if punched within the intestine.
He repeats this whereas going through north, west, and south, circling Lorri whereas she meditates. Then he invokes archangels.
“Raphael before me,” he chants in a voice like a foghorn. “Uriel behind me. Michael to my right. Gabriel to my left. Sandalphon below me. Metatron above me.”
When the ritual is complete, Damien is sweating and Lorri is blissful, encased in what they visualize as a protective sphere of light, flanked by flaming blue pentagrams and towering angels.
Combined with Lorri’s love, this kind of “ceremonial magick” enabled Damien to survive having to await execution on death row for 18 years, before being released in 2011.
The first time Lorri saw Damien’s face was on a movie screen at the Museum of Modern Art. It was winter, 1996. A friend had convinced her to see the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.
“I didn’t want to go,” says Lorri, who was a landscape architect in New York at the time. “It was a rainy Monday night. But some voice just kept telling me, ‘go.’”
The film chronicled the trials of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – the so-called West Memphis Three, a trio of Arkansan teenage metalheads.
In 1994, they were convicted of the brutal murders of three eight-year old boys, who had been found dead in a ditch in West Memphis, Arkansas, hogtied with their own shoelaces.
No concrete evidence linked the teenagers to the murders. But Damien’s interests in Wicca and black clothing led the Bible-thumping town to label him and his friends “Satanists.” During their trials, prosecutors convinced the juries that the murders had been part of a Satanic ritual by the town’s adolescent misfits.
Baldwin, then 16, and Misskelley, then 18, the alleged accomplices, were sentenced to life in prison. Damien, the alleged ringleader, then 19, was sentenced to death.
Love on death row
A week after seeing a gaunt, shackled Damien in Paradise Lost, Lorri sent him a letter in prison.
“Damien … my friends thought I was losing my mind,” she wrote. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you in that place – knowing – it was all so very wrong … I am committed to doing whatever I can to make your life a little more bearable.”
Days later, his reply arrived:
“I knew that sooner or later someone would take notice … You’ve already helped more than you know, just by writing. Do you have any idea how it feels to be called a killer even though you know you’re innocent?”
Aside from their Southern roots – Lorri was raised Evangelical in West Virginia – they didn’t seem to have much in common. He grew up in a shack with no electricity and loved Metallica and horror movies. She did architectural projects in the Hamptons and visited the MoMA on weekends.
“I’m not a goth girl,” Lorri says. “I didn’t grow up in abject poverty. He was the furthest thing from who I was.”
But soon, they were writing each other daily: about whirling dervishes, 17-year locusts, puberty, Faust, quitting smoking, Paganini and Interview with a Vampire.
Damien didn’t write much about the abuse he suffered at the hands of prison guards, though he did admit, “the mosquitoes are horrible”.
Four months after the first letter, Damien called Lorri on the phone. They started talking every day. Telling only a few close friends about her budding romance with a death row inmate, she hopped on a plane to visit him.
“There was a familiarity that was uncanny,” Lorri says of the first meeting. But they could speak only through a plexiglass wall. To get closer, they sat on the counter, leaning against the partition.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful creature”, Damien wrote afterward. “I wanted to hold my breath every time you moved. The only reason your age ‘freaked me out’ is because I feel so much older than you.” Damien was then 21, Lorri 33.
He sent her a shirt; it smelled like cloves. “I can’t believe I am wearing something that has been next to your lovely skin”, she wrote. She addressed each envelope in sepia ink and lipstick-kissed the seal.
Every month, on the night of the full moon, they’d each leave a bowl of water by a window in the moonlight. In the morning, they would drink this “moonwater,” as they called it, and feel cosmically linked.
They concocted a fantasy life together, planning to open a bookstore, travel to Egypt, and dress each other in green velvet cloaks. They argued over their future child’s name: Damien thought Lorri’s choice, Matilda, was “horrid”; he liked Shadowweaver.
“We will spend every minute of every day together”, Damien wrote in 1996. “I love you, and everything will be perfect soon.”
‘A star man coming out of the sky.’
Eventually, the phone bills from New York to Arkansas grew too expensive, and the physical distance too painful. In 1997, Lorri quit her job and moved to Little Rock, a 45-minute drive to Tucker Maximum Security Unit, where she visited Damien every Friday.
“Sometimes, a sadistic prison guard would supervise our visits,” Lorri says. “So we’d just sit and look at each other, holding up our hands, circulating energy. It would infuriate the guards.”
On Damien’s birthday, she smuggled devil’s food cake into the prison by hiding it in her bra.
In December 1999, they married in a Buddhist ceremony, held in the prison visiting room, where they were allowed to touch for the first time. “I was so happy, my face burned red for days,” Lorri says.
When asked how they held onto the hope that runs relentlessly through their thousands of letters, Lorri and Damien say they felt something greater than hope.
“Hope is about something you want, but you think there might not be a chance,” Damien says. “It didn’t feel like hope. We always just saw that we were gonna have a life together. It wasn’t even a question. We knew, in our bones, that as long as we were together, I’d come out okay. We were just waiting, is all.”
Ultimately, they waited nearly two decades.
While working as a park designer in Little Rock, Lorri fought doggedly for Damien’s release – raising money for his legal defense, harnessing the support of celebrities like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, and co-producing a documentary, with Peter Jackson, called West of Memphis, which made a case for the innocence of the West Memphis Three. Jackson helped pay for DNA testing that eventually convinced the State of Arkansas to negotiate their release.
In August, 2011, the day finally came: after entering an Alford plea, which allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty, the West Memphis Three walked free – though, after 10 years in solitary confinement, Damien, then 36, could barely walk.
“When Damien got out, it was like, bam – a bomb going off,” Lorri says. “He was like a star man coming out of the sky.”
While getting their bearings, they crashed at Peter Jackson’s Manhattan apartment, then did a stint in Salem, Massachusetts, before moving to Harlem. “New York is the only place I’ve ever felt safe,” Damien says.
Still, the symptoms of PTSD seemed insurmountable. Even as they traveled the world advocating to abolish the death penalty, basic human interactions and mundane activities like grocery-shopping triggered panic attacks.
“People think if you see someone on TV, talking to celebrities, they must be wealthy, doing okay,” Damien says. “But nothing could’ve been further from the truth. When I got out, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch TV, I couldn’t do my daily magick routine. It shattered me psychologically.”
Five years after Damien’s release, “we hit rock bottom,” Lorri says. “We didn’t recognize each other. We were horrible to each other. We were both suicidal at one point. We couldn’t fathom ever finding our way back.”
‘The art of causing change with will’
Over pizza at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, Lorri shows off a new ankle tattoo, of a 17-year-locust, pictured on a stamp on an early letter to Damien.
In 1996, a year the locusts were out, Damien wrote her, “We have to memorize every tiny detail about this year, so that the next time they are out, we can remember, and see how much we’ve changed.”
The 17-year-locust became their “symbol.” “You only get to see them so many times in your life,” Lorri says. But in 2013, when these insects next emerged, the couple was too mired in trauma to commemorate it as planned.
In the past year, the fog around them has lifted. Despite Damien’s initial resistance to psychotherapy – “I thought it was just so rich kids could pay someone to listen to ‘em run their mouths” – they’ve started couples’ counseling.
“It’s only in the past six months that we’ve started to feel anything even remotely approaching happiness,” Damien says.
The life they envisioned in their letters is flickering into reality, thanks to psychotherapy and their practice of magick, which they define as “the art of causing change with will.” This October, Damien will publish a book, High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row.
They’re also writing a ghost story together, about a West Virginian woman who inherits a Manhattan townhouse, “which she quickly realizes is haunted,” Lorri says. The woman thinks the haunter is a ghost, “but it’s really the soul of a young man in prison, in severe pain, who’s learned to travel outside his body. His soul flies around, and falls in love with the woman in New York. He’s trying to make her happy, but haunting her. She’s frightened. But she eventually learns who he is”.
After pizza, Lorri and Damien get ice cream, then wander around the Cathedral of St John the Divine. In the gardens, they hold hands and peer into a windowed hutch, home to several peacocks.
When Damien was on death row, Lorri would go about her day constantly imagining he was with her. “I’d picture him next to me in a car, or on a plane, or in the grocery store,” she says. “Mundane things. After he got out, and it happened in real life, I’d look over at him next to me, and be in shock. Like, Oh my god, he’s beside me on this plane. I’d short-circuit.
“It still happens. I’m so amazed that he’s out here. There were so many people who wanted him murdered.”
Feet away from Lorri, watching a peacock sit on the cathedral’s stone wall, Damien eats his ice cream.
Carey Dunne from theguardian.com