SHEENA BARNETT: Echols’ tale of hope rings with reader

Meeting Damien Echols at Off Square Books a few weeks ago felt like a story that had come full circle.

I remember turning 10 years old and hearing that three boys were found murdered in West Memphis, Ark., only a few hours away from my hometown here in North Mississippi.

I remember watching the news announce that Damien Echols and two other teen boys, who later came to be known as the West Memphis 3, had been arrested and charged with the boys’ murders.

A few years later, I remember my mom read a book about the case and saw “Paradise Lost,” and she said she didn’t think the teens were guilty.

As I grew up, I learned more about the case and how the three teens, now men, were basically convicted because they were incredibly poor and defenseless young outcasts.

I cheered as they were finally released.

I recently finished Echols’ prison memoir, “Life After Death,” in which he recalled his poverty-stricken upbringing and what life was like on death row.

I told Echols he was the happiest man I’ve ever interviewed: He was so calm and cheery as he talked about his wife and his work.

He was just as happy when he signed my book and we talked about authors we both enjoy.

And that’s just it: I’ve almost always felt like I had something in common with him.

The small-minded folks arrested and convicted Echols of murder thought, incorrectly, that he was a Satanist because he wore a lot of black, listened to Metallica, read Stephen King and had, like a lot of teens, a bad attitude.

Color me similar, and different, and that’s just it: We’re all different, with different interests.

Sometimes standing out from a crowd wins you praise; in Echols’ case, it gets you sent to death row for a crime you didn’t commit.

I understand the comfort in finding common ground with others. There’s a sense of camraderie when you’re around folks who are like you, whether they’re also a Southerner, also from the same hometown, also went to the same university, also like the same things or wear the same clothes.

But that sense of camraderie can be a bit boring, at least, and dangerous, at most.

It was 20 years ago that the West Memphis 3 were arrested, which was a long time ago, but not that long, either.

It scares me to think a couple of things that make you stand out can also almost completely ruin your life, if you’re different from someone else who has it out for you.

Echols’ book gets mighty dark, with harrowing tales of prison abuse and horrible conditions, but that’s not the message he hopes readers gain.

He wants readers to be inspired by his story, to find strength and hope in the worst situations.

I’m inspired, and I’m especially hoping that what makes us different can bring us together.

Above all else: I hope the true murderer(s) can finally be brought to justice.

SHEENA BARNETT covers entertainment for the Daily Journal. Her email address is

Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal

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