Senior Jennifer Parks said she was intimidated when Damien Echols first walked into a room full of University of Central Arkansas students on Monday afternoon.
Some of that intimidation came from old news articles Parks was required to read in preparation for Echols’ appearance. The articles painted Echols a less-than-favorable person.
"He walked in, dressed completely in black, you couldn’t see his eyes for his sunglasses," Parks said. "He was very quiet, and stoic."
It also didn’t help when Parks was required to go through extra security — which included walking past two police officers and having another man search all bags — before entering the classroom.
Even with the intimidation, Parks said it didn’t take long for her to see the real Echols, who spoke of various topics, but mainly on his book, "Life After Death," and his writing style.
"After he talked for a while, he seemed to relax and made eye contact with students," Parks said. "He was also really open."
The talk with several UCA students was the first leg of Echols’ first visit to Arkansas since being released from prison in 2011.
Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. — also known as the West Memphis Three — were convicted in the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis. While Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, Echols spent the next 18 years of his life on death row.
The case drew scrutiny from several levels, and eventually, the three were released from prison as part of a plea agreement in August 2011.
Before Monday, Echols had not returned to Arkansas since being released.
Parks said Echols briefly spoke of the difficulties he faced in coming back, and admitted this was not something he could have done a year ago.
"He said it was very traumatic to come here," Parks said. "On his way here, he said nobody talked to him."
Parks also said Echols recalled being "very worried and stressed out," and felt returning was a bad idea.
"Once he got back, he said it felt like Arkansas," Parks said. "He said it was a calming and soothing experience and he felt better after he got here than in the days and weeks beforehand."
Parks said she did not have prior knowledge of Echols and the 1993 murder case before reading the required articles before his visit. After being exposed to the articles, Parks said she was surprised at what she saw Monday afternoon.
"You would expect someone to be tortured by that and be sheltered as a result," she said. "It seemed like that at first, but he opened up and was wonderful."
I wish the articles would have been more realistic, I guess, on how nice, welcoming and open he is.
"He’s not terrifying and mean like you would expect someone who was charged with those crimes would be," Parks said. "Even though he was released, even if a person was wrongly convicted, you would expect the typical person to be hardened and horrible."
However, Echols was far from that, Parks said.
When his talk was over, Echols offered to sign copies of his books and take photos with students. Parks said she did not have a copy of his book, however, Echols signed one of his business cards for her, and also took a photo.
"It was incredibly nice and not expected," she said. "He could have just gone on his way instead of doing that."