This 2007 file photo provided by the Arkansas Department of Correction shows death row inmate Damien Echols.(Photo: AP)
Damien Echols and Lorri Davies pose for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
(Photo: Victoria Will, AP)
SALEM, Mass. (USA TODAY) -- He went from an accused devil-worshiping witch on Arkansas' death row to living in the land of persecuted witches.
For 18 years and 78 days, Damien Echols lived mainly on death row, a decade of that in solitary confinement, for one of Arkansas' most notorious crimes - the murders of three 8-year-old Boy Scouts. Echols and two other men convicted in the killing became known as The West Memphis 3.
Now 38, he's free again after DNA evidence shed new light on the case. He walks the streets of Salem, a community still shadowed by the Salem Witch Trials more than 300 years ago. Witch memorials and cemeteries stand between local businesses and restaurants. Here, he says, he fits in.
"It's the only place we considered living," Echols says, dressed in all black with tattoo-covered arms and dark sunglasses tucked behind his long black hair. "It's the freakiness of it all. Salem has an incredibly high degree of acceptance for anything outside the norm."
The murders of the three boys - Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers - continue to be a polarizing question for many. In July of 2007, new DNA evidence was presented that could not place Echols and his co-defendants at the scene. But it fell short of clearly exonerating them.
The state would not grant the three men a new trial. However, prosecutors offered Alford deals, meaning the men did not admit guilt but agreed that prosecutors had enough information to win a conviction.
Scott Ellington, a district prosecuting attorney for the Second Judicial District of Arkansas who handled the Alford plea deal, says no one can be sure of Echols' guilt or innocence.
"People are divided. A lot of people believe they are guilty and should still be in jail," Ellington says. "But many of those understand that retrying a 20-year-old case would be nearly impossible. ... It's probably 10 to 1. For every 10 contacts we have saying 'exonerate the West Memphis 3,' we get one saying 'How do you sleep at night knowing that you let three murderers go free?'"
And so, Echols has found his way here, to Salem. In the 17th century, more than 200 people were accused of practicing witchcraft and 20 were executed during the mass witch hunt hysteria in Salem. Following the trials and executions, many involved in the cases publicly confessed their errors and in 1957, the state of Massachusetts officially apologized for the trials.
Echols says he identifies with the witch trials, which for many, epitomize paranoia and injustice in the judicial system.
"Just the level of persecution," Echols says softly. "They sentenced me to death - and it was the exact same thing. They accused me of being a Satanist, of committing human sacrifices and all these things which were the exact same things as the people back then. Fortunately they weren't able to kill me like they were the people they hung here."
When he was 19, Echols was sentenced to execution by lethal injection for being the ringleader of the infamous West Memphis 3. His two friends, Jason Baldwin then 16 and mentally impaired, and Jesse Misskelly Jr., 17, were sentenced to life in prison. The three were let out of prison in 2011, after more than 18 years of incarceration.
Salem, Echols says, is a spiritual Mecca for people who are different. "Pretty soon after those trials, whenever they killed people that they accused of witchcraft, they realized pretty quickly afterwards - 'oh we messed up' and they're not eager to do the same thing again - it's like they learned their lesson back then."
Echols now lives in a historic 18th century home with his wife, Lorri Davis, 49, whom he met and married while on death row. Davis first reached out to Echols after she saw a documentary about the case. They married in a Buddhist ceremony in a prison visiting room in 1999. It was the first time the two had ever touched.
While Salem residents are overwhelmingly supportive of Echols, with some strangers even approaching him to ask for a hug, the 20-year-old controversial case still captivates the nation.
The 8-year-olds were found dead, naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis in May of 1993.
Prosecutors believed that the crime was part of a Satanic ritual which led them to suspect Echols, a teenager who practiced the Wiccan brand of witchcraft and who dressed in black. He had a passion for heavy metal metal and the occult.
The case garnered the attention of celebrities including actor Johnny Depp, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, who came out in support of the West Memphis 3. HBO produced a series of documentaries bringing the case into the public eye.
Despite intense pressure from celebrities and the public, the state would not grant the men a new trial. However, prosecutors offered the plea deal.
Echols says he was told, "You can sit in prison, hope you survive all this time and maybe have a chance of suing the state or you can sign the agreement and maybe go home before the week is out."
About a week later Echols walked off of death row and was a free man -- nearly. "We aren't really free," Echols says.
Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley all have three murder convictions on their record as part of the conditions of the release. The criminal record restricts their right to travel and the Alford plea mandates that they are not allowed to sue the state for anything having to do with the case.
Todd and Dana Moore, parents of Michael Moore, one of the murdered Boy Scouts, maintain that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are guilty and should not have been let out of prison.
In November of 2011, the couple requested that a documentary about the killings be excluded from Academy Award consideration. They made the request in a letter sent Nov. 22 to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' documentary division. In it, the Moores argue that Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory glorifies Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were released from prison in August after their sentences were set aside and they pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
"Because of public pressure that exploded due to gross misrepresentations of fact in the two previous documentaries, Michael's killers were unjustly able to enter into a plea agreement, were released from prison and now pose additional threats to society," the Associated Press quoted the letter as saying.
"We implore the Academy not to reward our child's killers and the directors who have profited from one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated under the guise of a documentary film."
Nevertheless, life is moving forward for Echols and Davis in Salem. The couple is currently writing a book about their correspondence while he was in prison.
Tuesday, his new book, Life After Death, hits the stands, recounting his life story and detailing the trial and his years in prison.
Echols has also opened up a business just blocks from his home where he practices Hermetic Reiki, a form of energy healing, that he learned in prison.
"In prison there's almost no medical care, there's no dental care, there were times when I was in prison - especially on death row -- they aren't gonna spend a lot of time and money and energy on someone they plan on killing," Echols says. "There were times I got so sick I didn't think I'd make it through the night. The only thing I had to rely on was mediation and energy work."
Echols says his interest in alternative forms of spiritual practice stems back to his childhood and is one of the reasons he was targeted as an outcast in Arkansas.
"The reasons I was persecuted in the first place are what saved my life and are now what allow me to help myself and other people," Echols says.
For Echols, it won't be over until all three men are exonerated.
"I think it will eventually happen but it won't happen if we don't keep working for it," he says.
Now, Echols is pushing for an investigation into the murder of the three boys with the support of Lord of the Rings directors Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, Steve Braga, Lonnie Soury and Rachael Geiser.
"I don't know who did this," Echols says. "We shouldn't have to say who did this. We should be able to allow the evidence to speak for itself."
Writer: Natalie DiBlasio, USA Today Reporter