How A Teen Falsely Accused Of A Heinous Murder Descended Into Madness

Editor’s note:Reese Witherspoon stars in an upcoming thriller “
The Devil’s Knot,” which is based on the sad “
West Memphis Three” story of three teens falsely convicted of the heinous 1993 murders of three young boys.

Those three men were released in 2011 after new evidence emerged that cast serious doubt on their guilt. One of those men, Damien Echols, had been on death row.

In her book “The Devil’s Knot: The True Story Of The West Memphis Three,” Mara Leveritt sheds light on the psychological toll of the accusations on then-18-year-old Echols while he was in jail before his trial. We have excerpted a section of the book below, called “Descent into Madness,” with permission from the publisher Atria Publishing Group.


As the summer intensified, so did Shettles’s [Glori Shettles, an investigator working for Echols’ defence] concern for Damien’s mental state. By mid-July he told her that he was sleeping as little as two hours a night. Noting that he was “noticeably shaky,” she wrote, “He can quote many songs and relates lyrics of songs to his feelings. He quoted lyrics from a Pink Floyd song called ‘Comfortably Numb’ and an Ozzy Osbourne song called ‘Road to Nowhere.’ “

The titles were sounding increasingly apt. By August Damien was hallucinating. Soon he was showing signs of full-blown paranoia. He wrote in a letter to Shettles, “I think the police are up to something. They are doing something to the food and putting some kind of gas in the vents. I think they are doing something to my medicine.” When Shettles visited the jail in mid-August, the sheriff informed her that Damien had begun a hunger strike.

When she went to Damien’s cell, he told her that “the reason he had gone on the hunger strike was he had no desire to go to trial and he did not feel he would receive a fair trial.”

She wrote, “As I left, one of the older jailers asked when Michael [another name Damien went by] might be moved to the state mental hospital for an evaluation. He stated he did not understand why the attorneys had not already moved him, as it was inevitable that he would need to be transferred for an evaluation. There are several jailers there that apparently take Michael’s condition very seriously and they appear to be sympathetic and concerned for his welfare.”

The jailers had reason for concern. Damien told Shettles he felt like “a walking razor blade.” He knew that, mentally and legally, his situation was dire. He knew he was perceived as “a devil worshiper or a nut case or something.” In his fitful journal he wrote, “I might lose my mind and I might lose my head.”

Despair was taking its toll. He alternated between utter delusion and acute awareness.

In a desperate letter to his family he wrote: “I need a doctor. I think I’m having a nervous breakdown, and I’m afraid to tell the people here. They wouldn’t care anyway. Don’t worry about me. I’m ok. Just tell Val Price [Damien’s lawyer] or Glori [Shettles] I need a doctor. Don’t forget!” At the bottom of the page, he pleaded again, “Don’t forget the doctor!”

But no doctor ever came. Damien later wrote, “I am walking the borderline of insanity. . . . I don’t like it. I am helpless to stop it.” Later: “Help me. They have invaded and destroyed my world. It seemed harmless enough. Now it’s a contest: who can destroy me first? Them or myself.”

Later still: “Mother Night, wrap your dark arms around me. Protect me. Lord of Chaos, guide me. Father Death, embrace me. I am the half man who dwells in both worlds. I walk in shadow and light and am cursed by both.”

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