Surviving by magick—Part 1

Damien Echols breaks his long silence on the occult

[private]Later this year, when a court in Jonesboro holds the evidentiary hearing ordered last September by the Arkansas Supreme Court, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., will have been behind bars for 18 years. Echols has spent almost all of that time on Arkansas’s Death Row. At that still-unscheduled hearing, everything that happened at the men’s 1994 trials will be up for review. Echols thinks the prosecutions boiled down to this:

 “If you took everything else out and just kept the way I dressed, the books I read, my hair, and the music we listened to—that was enough to convict us,” he said in a November 2010 interview. “All they  needed was the scary picture.”

Indeed, it is fair to question whether Echols and Baldwin, in particular, would have been convicted of the triple homicide if prosecuting attorneys had not evoked “the occult” as the sinister background influence that served as their motive to kill. At first, in the prosecutors’ opening statements, they did not suggest any motive. But as the Echols-Baldwin trial was entering its third week, Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman suddenly announced that he was going to call to the stand “an expert in cult-related crimes.”

When defense attorneys objected, Judge David Burnett called a conference in his chambers. There, West Memphis Police Detective Bryn Ridge testified that he had believed from the start that the murders were “cult-related.” As reasons he cited “the fact that there was overkill—more injuries to the boys’ bodies than what was needed to kill them,” the “damage to the left side of one of the boys’ faces,” and the facts that the victims were eight years old and male. To Ridge, each factor was “a sign of the occult.”

At one point, Judge David Burnett asked two of the attorneys: “Can either one of you define ‘occult’ for me.” The judge then murmured, “It sounds like something bad, but I’m not sure what it is.”

Fogleman told the judge: “It is my understanding that part of the involvement deals with obsession with heavy metal music, change in forms of dress, wearing all black.”

Back in the courtroom after that meeting, the prosecutors called to the stand an Ohio man, Dale Griffis, who billed himself as an “expert in the occult.” Although Griffis claimed to have a Ph.D., that claim was quickly shown to be bogus. Nevertheless, Burnett certified Griffis as an expert witness and allowed him to testify at length about aspects of the murders that he said “bore trappings of the occult.”

Burnett repeated his earlier question to Griffis: “What is the difference in occult or cult?”

Griffis replied: “An occult group is a group that is involved in some form of esoteric science, and they have been around prior to Christianity.” He then described cults as “those who follow a particular belief style under a charismatic leader, and, in and among their belief style, they do break the law.”

From then on, the prosecutors sought to combine Griffis’ testimony about the murders—that there were three victims, there was a full moon on the night the boys disappeared, and their bodies were found in water—with testimony that Echols wore black and read books about Wicca, while Baldwin, as Fogleman put it, “had 15 black T-shirts with the heavy-metal thing.” Years later, Fogleman would explain that Griffis’s testimony about “the occult” was relevant at the trial “to show the mind-set, particularly of Damien.”

Though prosecutors sought the death penalty for both teenagers, jurors declined it for Baldwin, sentencing him instead to life in prison. But, having heard Echols portrayed as the cult’s “charismatic leader,” they did sentence him to death.

Looking back, Echols sees his conviction as hinging on the unknown but frightening notion that he, especially, was somehow caught up in the vague but frightening “occult.” In fact, by the definition that Griffis offered—that the occult is “some form of esoteric science” that has “been around [since] prior to Christianity”—Echols was, and still is today.

At his trial, prosecutors questioned Echols about his interest in Wicca, the neo-pagan religion that is often referred to as Witchcraft. Echols says he “fell in love” with Wicca when he was young because it was “more easily accessible to a teenager” than the similar but more obscure course of study he has since pursued.

Echols now says that, though he could not have expressed it when he was tried at 18, he was pursuing esotericism—a combination of spiritual traditions that include alchemy, mysticism, astrology, tarot, Rosicrucianism, and ritual magic or “magick.” “It’s the thing I have always loved,” he says, “ever since I was 12 years old.” 

Books and some people he has met while in prison have allowed him to pursue that passion further. Now Echols says that magick—the occultish interest that helped to convict him—is what has allowed him to survive on Death Row.

“I don’t know how these other guys do it,” he wrote recently. “I truly don’t. If it wasn’t for magick, I would have been dead long ago.

“It gives me the ability to erect psychological and etheric boundaries that keep the darkness at bay. It’s a proactive way of handling the lack of things like medical care. And it’s very cleansing on the subtle energy bodies—sort of like a psychic shower.

“I honestly don’t know how the others here manage to survive without it. Some of these people radiate an energy so foul I literally want to hold my breath when I’m forced to be near them. What do you do if you have no means of protecting yourself against that? What happens when you spend day after day, year after year, being saturated by that hatred and blackness?”  

Next—Part 2: ‘They planned on killing me’[/private]

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