True Crime

I married a convicted child killer

One letter was all it took to turn Lorri's life upside down.

Lorri Davis, 50, New York, USA

My chest felt tight as I walked towards the man I was about to marry. As I reached him and took his hands, the feeling was intoxicating.

You see, my fiance Damien, now 39, and I had never held hands or even touched before the ceremony. It wasn’t by choice. They were the rules handed down by the state of Arkansas, where Damien was a prisoner on death row.

That’s right, the man I was about to pledge my life to was a convicted murderer. Damien first came into my life in 1996, when my friend and I watched a documentary called Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film followed the true story of three young men, Damien Echols, then 18, Jessie Misskelley Jr, 17, and Jason Baldwin, 16.

That’s right, the man I was about to pledge my life to was a convicted murderer.

In 1994 they were charged with the murder of Stevie Edward Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, who were all nine years old at the time of their deaths. The victims were found naked on the banks of a creek in the Robin Hood Hills. Tragically, they’d been brutally stabbed.

The three teenagers fast became suspects in the small, conservative community, due to their interest in heavy metal music and black clothing. But as the documentary progressed it became clear the evidence against them was flimsy at best. The prosecution even claimed the three young men worshipped the devil.

Their defence team seemed to bungle the case and all three were found guilty based on circumstantial evidence and unreliable witness statements. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley Jr was handed life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin received life imprisonment.

I don’t usually have a great interest in true crime stories but I couldn’t get Damien out of my mind. He was so eloquent and intelligent and my heart broke thinking of him stuck in prison for a crime I believed he didn’t commit. I wanted to do something, anything to let him know that people cared about his plight.

Two weeks later, without telling anyone, I wrote to Damien on death row. It was completely out of character but the words seemed to come naturally. I told him I felt for him, and wanted to help in any way I could.

Amazingly, just a week later, I received a reply. Lorri, Thank you so much for writing. You asked what you could do to help. You’ve already helped more than you know, just by writing. And just like that, our bond was formed.

Damien Echols was sentenced to death. (Credit: Lisa Waddell)

The correspondence flowed quickly between us. Often I’d send multiple letters a week before I received a reply. Damien and I just clicked. We had different tastes in novels and movies, but our life views were very similar. We both followed the Buddhist faith and his strength in coping with his situation amazed me.

After a month, I built up the courage to tell my close friends about my unusual pen pal. Luckily, they were open minded and even supportive. ‘We know you’re a good judge of character,’ one said. But I refrained from telling my family. I wasn’t sure they would be as understanding.

Our letters continued and soon our relationship became romantic. Six months on, when I visited him for the first time in prison, we were both smitten. I was heartbroken by how weak and thin he looked. He obviously wasn’t eating enough behind bars. Still he was the most handsome man I’d ever seen and we talked as long as we could, separated by a glass partition.

Damien felt the same way about our meeting. I’ve never seen a more beautiful creature, he wrote. I wanted to hold my breath every time you moved.

We talked on the phone all the time and after 18 months, I quit my job as an architect and moved from New York City to Little Rock, Arkansas, an hour away from the prison.

Damien and Lorri in 1999

It gave me the chance to work with Damien’s legal team full time and help run the website that brought publicity to the their plight. By now the media was slowly catching on and Damien, Jessie and Jason became known as the ‘West Memphis Three’ with several celebrities bringing attention to the case.

In 1999, Damien and I finally decided to get married. We’d never had contact visits so when we touched for the first time at our Buddhist wedding ceremony, it was indescribable. I ached to take my husband away from his cell but we had to let the wheels of justice turn.

By then I’d told my family about us and although they were sad to see me putting my life on hold waiting for Damien, they still gave us their blessing. The legal case to free the West Memphis Three was painfully slow and it was more than a decade before my hard work finally paid off.

We had to let the wheels of justice turn.

The case for a retrial came before the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010 and the boys were offered something called an Alford plea by the prosecution. It meant they were allowed to continue to assert their innocence while signing documents acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. It was far from ideal but it was a way to bring them out of prison and continue the fight to prove their innocence on the outside.

On August 19, 2011, they were released on 10-year suspended sentences, having served over 18 years in prison. Damien’s first days of freedom were overwhelming but I was happy to guide him through this strange new world.

Three glorious years on, we’re living together in New York, still very much in love and appreciating the freedom most people take for granted. I’ve never regretted losing 15 years waiting for Damien – true love can weather anything, even death row.

‘True love can weather anything, even death row.’ (Credit: Victoria Will)
Lorri and Damien’s book, Yours For Eternity, by Text Publishing, is out now..

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