Damien Echols is having trouble with some bookshelves. They're cheap ones, from Target, and he's supposed to be able to put them together himself. But the instructions don't make sense, the diagrams are useless. Echols struggles to attach one piece to another in the study of his new house just outside the center of Salem. The leaves outside are bright and haven't fallen; it's morning in October. The pieces do not fit together.
This is the same Damien Echols who was once the most feared and hated figure in a small Southern town. Damien Echols, who spent 18 years on death row.
In an HBO documentary about the case, parents and citizens, fire in their eyes, call for Echols and his alleged accomplices to rot in hell, and worse. "If I had the chance to talk with Damien Echols," the mother of one of the victims tells the camera, "I would tell him that I hope he bust hell wide open. Period. And that if I could get my hands on him, I would eat the skin off of his face."
He gives up on the shelves. The books and letters and small statues and drawings Echols did in prison will remain in their boxes another day. The shelves end up heaped on the curb for the garbage collectors to take away.
A year after his release from prison, Echols has chosen to settle in Salem for a reason: he feels a kinship with the history of the place. He knows what it's like to be the object of a witch hunt.
In 1993, three hundred years after the first witch was accused in Salem, Echols was tried, along with Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, for the murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. They were convicted in early 1994.
It was a famously botched investigation and biased trial. Coerced statements, lying witnesses, DNA evidence ignored. Once the town's anger had settled on teenagers who wore black and listened to heavy metal, their fates were sealed.
Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences; Echols, age 18, was sentenced to die. It took 18 years, numerous appeals, three documentaries, and the public shaming of the court by dozens of celebrities to free the West Memphis Three. In 2011, they were released after offering an Alford plea, a guilty plea with the profession of innocence.
Which is to say, the three men asserted their innocence, but acknowledged that there was evidence enough to convict them. It got them out of jail, and also let Arkansas off the hook; the men are still guilty as charged and cannot sue the town or the state for their imprisonment. Not everyone calls this justice.
Salem is supposed to be a new life, in this city with a past as troubled as Echols's own. He says it's getting easier. Less waking up screaming. Fewer panic attacks. "It's the product of living in absolute fear 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says.