Damien Echols is in a unique position to comment on Netflix’s controversial documentary Making A Murderer, having also spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. As one of the West Memphis Three, Echols was convicted based on a coerced confession and his general demeanor rather than any real evidence. In this essay published exclusively in The A.V. Club, he offers his thoughts on the crime—and wrongful convictions. Echols is the author of two books, Life After Death and Yours For Eternity. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram.
Over the holidays I started receiving tweets, Facebook posts, emails, and media requests for interviews regarding my thoughts about the new Netflix series, Making A Murderer. I don’t watch much TV, and I don’t pay attention to the news, but after learning the details of Steven Avery’s case, I have found myself haunted by the parallels to my own life. With each unfolding scene I had the sickening sense that this story will never end, cast as it is with the same characters acting out the same tired old tricks: corrupt cops, inept or powerless public defenders, judges, and prosecutors pursuing political agendas rather than justice for all concerned.
I was convicted of three counts of capital murder in 1993. Along with the two others who were convicted with me, we became known as the West Memphis Three. After enough evidence had been found to grant us a new hearing that would prove our innocence, the state of Arkansas offered us an insane deal called the Alford plea—as part of it, we could legally claim we were innocent, but the state would maintain our guilt. The deal would prevent us from seeking compensation for the 18 years we spent in prison. I spent those years on death row, 10 of them in isolation.
We took the deal, knowing that even if proven innocent it would take us years to be processed out of the prison system. We were released in 2011. Today all three of us are legally considered felons.
Steven Avery is paying a higher price. After being proven innocent of rape, and serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit, he sued the Wisconsin county that convicted him for $36 million. All evidence suggests that in order to avoid paying out any settlement, Steven was framed for yet another murder, and is now serving a life sentence with no parole for a crime he didn’t commit. He has been in prison for another 10 years.
As in my experience, it was a team of filmmakers who shined the light on his case and the heinous actions of those involved in the criminal justice system. And as in my case, people from all over the world are coming forward and acting, demanding that this total disregard for justice be righted.
People have told me over and over that my story is unique, the circumstances of my case—the injustice to the real victims, their families, to the West Memphis Three—made for a perfect storm, never to be seen again. But lightning does strike twice, and many more times after that—my story and Steven’s are only two in the vast, impenetrable legal landscape.
Why is it that those who are in the positions to protect us consistently get away with atrocious acts of corruption and violence, without consequences, without accountability? They are protected by the very ones who should be policing them.
If you think this couldn’t possibly happen again to you, that you’re protected—you’re wrong. Everyone is at risk. Just ask tennis player James Blake, who was recently attacked by a police officer in a case of “mistaken identity.” It can happen to anyone, and until reforms are put in place to hold our justice system to a higher standard, we are all accountable for its victims.