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Culture Shock

West Memphis 3’s Damien Echols speaks on perseverance and change

Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 00:02


photo By Nathanael Packard | staff

Monday Feb. 11, Damien Echols poses with Jamie Harmon, creator of the Amurica Photo Booth, at the Startup Conference, hosted by after participating in a fireside chat with Commercial Appeal business reporter James Dowd.

In 1994, Mark Zuckerberg was only nine or ten years old. Michael Jackson would marry Lisa Marie Presley, and Kurt Cobain would end his life.

It was years before the release of the DVD, four years before Google, and nobody would be creating a MySpace profile until 2003. iPhones were a long way from being a reality. Justin Bieber would be born, and three teenagers from West Memphis would start to serve 17 years in prison after being convicted of murder.

On Monday, Damien Echols returned to Memphis for the first time since being released from prison in 2011 to speak at a startup conference about how technology, along with the world, had changed while he had been in prison.

“I remember my parents always talking about it,” said David Creech, a sophomore English major.

“During my sophomore year of high school, I did my own research on it. I became enraged that the ‘West Memphis Three’ were borderline tortured.”

Damien Echols spent 17 years on death row, 10 of those being in complete solitary confinement.

“It causes you to look at yourself in a way most people never have to,” Echols said. His TV became his “companion.” It served as a “monotonous, constant noise” to drown out the chaos in the prison.

After a man told him that he could “choose to have life or go stark-crazy insane,” he began a routine of physical exercise, educating himself and meditating for five to seven hours a day.

“I didn’t have much of an opinion until 2010,” said Jason Charnes, a junior computer science major.

“It didn’t make sense that three kids were in jail with no solid evidence. It seemed like a city was in panic and West Memphis wanted to close the lid of the madness as soon as possible, no matter what.”  The first three months out of prison were filled with “shock and trauma,” according to Echols.

“Things that would scare people didn’t bother me, but things people take for granted scared me to death,” Echols said.

He could handle a homeless man screaming on a New York City subway, but swiping a card to pay for groceries was “scary” to him. The only computer Damien had ever seen was in 1986, which he found to be uninteresting.

Upon being released, he was given two gifts: an iPhone and a computer. While the iPhone took “two weeks to figure out,” the computer just became a “glorified jukebox to play music videos,” Echols said.  Now a New York Times best selling author, Echols still writes by hand. He doesn’t like e-readers; “books have soul,” he said.

His debut book, “Life After Death,” was released on Sept. 18, 2012. It is an account of his life and trials in prison, along with his search for spirituality while maintaining patience throughout his years in solitary confinement.

Since reentering the modern world, he hates talking on the phone, but has no problem texting or playing “Angry Birds.” When his editor first told him that he had to start using twitter, he had no idea what it was. Damien came to love the app, claiming that it feels like “writing poetry.”

Damien and his wife, Laurie, have spent six months on the road in support of book signings and other events. Peter Jackson, director of the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, recently produced a documentary, “West of Memphis,” which follows the aftermath of the case. It will be playing at select Malco theatres beginning March 1.

The husband and wife team is currently co-writing a new book together, and hope to eventually open a small meditation center in Salem, Mass.

“We want to share things we love that aren’t related to the case,” said Echols.

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