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FedEx pulls conference funding

Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 01:02


photo By Nathanael Packard | staff

Business reporter James Dowd sits down with Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three to discuss his interaction with technology both in and out of prison.

FedEx withdrew its $30,000 sponsorship Wednesday from “ The Startup Conference” after it was announced that Damien Echols would speak.

Echols spoke with James Dowd, business reporter for the Commercial Appeal, in a fireside chat yesterday evening at 4:30 p.m. at the Cook Convention Center.

“It was one of the more inspirational speeches I have seen,” Nick Redmond, cofounder of Memphis-based startup company Soundstache, said.  “I was filled with ambition and excitement to appreciate life.”

The conference was almost cancelled after the corporate sponsor withdrew their funding. However, additional support from other sponsors ensured the event would continue as planned.

A FedEx representative told the Daily Helmsman that they would issue a formal response via email, however, as of the time this story was printed, they offered no such response.

“It is certainly their right to withdraw support, but it made something that shouldn’t have been that controversial, controversial,” Rachel Hurley, University of Memphis junior and cofounder of Soundstache, said. “It never even crossed my mind that it would be an issue.”

Other attendees of the conference were also baffled by FedEx’s decision.

“I honestly didn’t think he was all that controversial now, especially now that he has been released. I also thought it was strange because it is such a small part of this conference,” Carrie Brown-Smith, professor of entrepreneurial journalism at the U of M, said.

For entrepreneur Redmond, the startup offered much more than just an opportunity to meet Echols. He was offered a check for $15,000 as an investment in his startup company.

In the early 1990’s, when he was 18 years old, Damien Echols was convicted along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — the “West Memphis Three” — of the murders of three young boys. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison, while Echols was sent to death row.  
The story quickly swept across the nation and spawned three HBO documentaries called “Paradise Lost” and a documentary by Peter Jackson called “West of Memphis.”

The overwhelming media attention and films created about the case resulted in the involvement of several celebrities including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson.

In 2011, the West Memphis Three agreed to an Alford plea and were released. With this type of plea, a defendant does not admit to committing a crime but does admit that there is enough evidence for the prosecution to convince a judge and jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

After sitting on death row for 18 years, Echols was free. Although he had remained still, the world of technology had changed drastically.  
“I think that is fascinating. What would that be like if you had been totally out of the loop for so long and then suddenly thrown into this world where there is Facebook, Twitter, and other types of technology you had never experienced?” Brown-Smith said.

Conference goers got a glimpse of what life was like for someone who had missed almost two decades of technological advances.

“[Echols] said when he went [to jail] it was the early 90s, and there weren’t even CD’s yet — the only computer he had seen was a glorified typewriter that only rich people used,” Redmond said. “When he got out he was given an iPhone and a brand new laptop by his wife’s parents.”

Some attendees looked forward to hearing him speak for more reasons than just hearing his insight on the advances in technology.

“Personally, I followed the case since I was 18 years old, and I knew someone whose cousin was a victim,” Hurley said. “I have followed his life and I find it inspiring that he has gone through what he has been through and he has carried on.”

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