It was a trip that Damien Echols said could have been psychologically challenging, but instead, his first visit to Arkansas since 2011 was memorable.
"You all have made this a very welcoming experience," Echols told hundreds at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway on Monday night. "It’s something I will always remember."
Echols returned to the state where he spent 18 years on death row as an artist in residence at the University of Central Arkansas for a public reading of his personal memoir and New York Times best seller, "Life After Death."
As teenagers, Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — also known as the West Memphis Three — were convicted in the gruesome, 1993 murder of the three West Memphis boys. While Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin and Misskelley received life in prison.
The entire case — from the heinous slaying of the three eight-year-old boys to the subsequent murder trials — garnered national attention and scrutiny. Questions continually surrounded the teens’ convictions, which in turn, drew support for the convicted from various celebrities, including Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.
Months after the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered new hearings in the case, the West Memphis Three, then middle-aged men, were released from prison Aug. 19, 2011.
Returning to Arkansas for the first time since that day, Echols received a standing ovation walking onto the stage. The straight-faced Echols kept an almost-capacity crowd enthralled with intrigue and a few laughs during an almost hour-long talk.
Although rarely smiling while on stage, Echols cracked a big smile and laughed after an audience member yelled "thank you" to express gratitude for his return.
The night greatly focused around Echols, his wife, Lorri Davis, and how writing provided a means of survival for the former death-row inmate.
Although his book centers around his less-than-fortunate upbringing and his time in prison, for Echols, it was always meant to provide hope for people.
"The last thing I want to do to people reading my work is depress the hell out of them," he said. "I never wanted people to come away from it, close the book and say, ‘Man, life sucks.’ It was more about giving people hope."
Writing was something that began around the age of 12 with "god-awful poetry," Echols said. Even though it had always been a love for him, Echols stopped writing for a period of time after some of his writings were used against him in court.
"The way they took things I had written in the past, took them out of context, twisted them, distorted them and made it look like I was saying things that I didn’t actually say," Echols recalled. "It screwed me up psychologically for a long time."
It was not until he noticed a cease in development of other inmates that Echols said he discovered he needed writing as a means of survival.
"Immediately, (new inmates) stopped developing as people, because they’re not having experiences anymore," Echols said. "They’re not having anything that makes them grow in any sort of way. So they start to stagnate, deteriorate and decay inside. I immediately saw that I didn’t want to be that way."
It was also his prison writing that helped develop a love between he and his wife, Lorri.
Echols and Davis were married in December 1999 after a three-year period of exchanging letters and visits. Davis first wrote Echols in 1996 after viewing HBO’s "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," which centered around the scrutiny and uncertainty of the murder trials.
"We fell in love through writing to each other," Davis said. "It was the way he expressed himself in letters."
In addition to a screenplay, Davis said the two are now working on a book, "Yours For Eternity," which is a collection of the letters exchanged during Echols’ time in prison.
"That’s what Damien would sign his letters to me," Davis said of the book’s proposed name.
The book is scheduled to be released in June, Davis said.
Before closing the evening, Echols read selected passages from his book, including one entry that told of a particular piece of mail he received while in prison.
"Today I received a letter from Sen. John Kerry asking me for a donation," Echols read as the audience erupted in laughter. "Much like the one I received last year from Joe Biden, this one also says that if I don’t help the Democrats, they won’t be able to stop those evil Republicans from violating my civil rights. After reading it, I could only quote the great Elvis Presley when he says, ‘what the hell, man?’"
Echols said the visit helped bring his story full circle, mentioning the fact he took multiple classes from UCA — including Reading German, Sociology and General Psychology — while in prison.
After the event, Echols took part in a book signing for audience members. Earlier in the day, Echols spoke with multiple writing classes and held an interview with a group of graduate students.
(Staff writer Lee Hogan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1246. Follow Lee Hogan on Twitter at twitter.com/LCD_LeeHogan. To comment on this and other stories, log on to thecabin.net.)