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October 4, 2012

From Death Row to Witch City

Arkansas man resettles in Salem, Mass., after spending half his life in prison

SALEM — Damien Echols walked down the Essex Street pedestrian mall yesterday smiling through the mist and drizzle.

“The thing I missed most inside was the rain,” he said. “You don’t realize how much you miss it until you don’t have it for 20 years.”

The sky was gray. Echols was dressed in black.

Black shirt. Black pants. Black boots.

“It makes you feel a little safer,” he said of a color he was worn since he was a Goth kid in a long black coat growing up in a trailer park in West Memphis, Ark. “You’re a little more comfortable, and you don’t have to think of what you’re wearing. I literally have 10 pairs of these pants and 10 of these shirts.”

Straight black hair hangs to his shoulders.

His arms and fingers are covered with dark tattoos, Egyptian, Hebrew and Viking symbols. The Chinese words for “winter” and “snow” are scrawled on his forearms, along with a hexagram from the I Ching, tattoos he got with Johnny Depp, one of several celebrities who has become a friend and defender.

“For me, it’s almost like putting on armor of the things I love,” he said of the tattoos.

Just over a year ago, Echols, 37, was released from an Arkansas prison on a plea deal after DNA tests and other evidence pointed to his innocence.

He had spent half his life in the Arkansas prison system after being falsely convicted along with two teenage friends — The West Memphis Three — of the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.

Supporters said Echols, who was accused of being “Satanic,” was the victim of a witch hunt fueled by public hysteria. Over the years, his case drew national attention. He became the poster child for judicial injustice.

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