By Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Damien Echols’ story is one even a fiction writer couldn’t dream up.
Echols is one of a trio of men known as the “West Memphis 3,” who were convicted of killing three boys in West Memphis, Ark., in 1993. He was given the death penalty, but with the help of documentaries like “Paradise Lost” and celebrities taking up his cause, Echols was released in 2011. He spent nearly 20 years on death row.
He now lives in Salem, Mass., and his memoir, “Life After Death,” was just released in paperback this week. He’ll sign copies of it at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Off Square Books.
“Life After Death” recounts Echols’ tumultuous childhood and what it was like being on death row, full of abusive guards, filthy conditions and the struggle to hope for his release.
“I hope (readers) come away from it feeling inspired,” Echols said in a phone interview with the Daily Journal. “In a lot of ways, this could be a very dark, depressing story. I want people to come away from it knowing it’s possible to go through horrible circumstances and come out the other side a better person, a stronger person.”
Echols’ childhood was marked by poverty, and his family moved a lot while he was growing up.
The family lived in Tupelo for two brief periods when Echols was about 8 or 9.
“I remember a small duplex, and it would’ve been in a run down part of town because we were always really, really poor. It was behind an abandoned factory,” he said.
Back to the South, and beyond
Since his release from death row, Echols has not returned to Arkansas. He has visited only Memphis and Nashville briefly to promote “West of Memphis,” a documentary he produced about the case and his story with “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. Returning to the South isn’t easy, he said, but he’s looking forward to it.
“(Being in Nashville) was so traumatic that it made me literally very sick,” he said. “It was like a tar pit that closes over you and you think you’ll never get out of it. But it’s been more than a year since then, and with every day that passes I grow a little stronger and a little stronger and now I think I’m ready for it.”
“Life After Death” is a New York Times Bestseller, with blurbs on the jacket from the likes of John Grisham, Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder.
“When I was released, we had to hit the ground running. I had nothing, nowhere to go, no money, so the first year was all about basic survival needs. I didn’t stop and think about how things would be received, but it snowballed. The first thing was this amazing review from the New York Times. That’s like the top of the top. Then it hit me, this is real now,” he said.
While in prison, Echols learned about Reiki, a Japanese style of energy work that heals the body. He’s opened Hermetic Reiki, in which he offers sessions and classes, in Salem.
“In prison there’s really no medical or dental care; they’re not going to put a lot of time and money to take care of someone they plan on killing. I had to learn energy work, reiki,” he said. “That’s what I love doing. Not talking about the case over and over.”
Echols thrives on his work, art and writing, and he said he’s a happy man these days.
He’s currently working on a new book with his wife, Lorri Davis, who was instrumental in getting Echols released from prison.
“It’s going to revolve around our correspondence. We have 120 pounds worth of letters, over 5,000 letters that we wrote back and forth,” Echols said. “We’re combing through them now to tell our story. Not the story of me going through the trial and being on death row, but the story of our life, and our relationship.”