Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three on life after (almost) death

Download Flash Player to view this content.

First aired on Day 6 (22/9/12)


Damien Echols spent 18 years and 78 days in prison, serving time for a crime he didn't commit. He is one of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers who were found guilty of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993. The trio maintained their innocence and mounting evidence supported their claims -- key witnesses admitted to lying and a key confession was obtained by questionable means. The case became famous. Celebrities got involved and documentaries were made. In August 2011, they were finally released and their story is the  subject of Echols' new documentary, West of Memphis (you can watch the trailer for the film below), and his memoir, Life After Death.


Echols spent literally half his life in prison, and much of the time he was in prison, he was in solitary confinement. "I had reached a point where I literally couldn't remember the simplest things any more," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "For example, I would remember that pizza was my favourite food, but I could not remember what it tasted like any more." He also forgot what rain felt like, what it was like to see a full moon and other simple pleasures. The lack of natural light ruined his eyesight and his health deteriorated because of the lack of physical activity and fresh air. He saw many other prisoners lose their minds dealing with the conditions. "It's very psychologically devastating."

What kept him going during that time was focusing on what made his life worthwhile in the present. He developed a relationship with his now-wife Laurie (they married in 1999, when Echols was still in prison). Echols wrote poetry and music and did what he could to keep his mind active. "It can't all be about looking forward towards the day you'll get out," he said. "It has to be about the present moment and doing something right here and now in this cell, as hard as that may be, to bring some sort of magic into your life."

He gained his freedom by entering an Alford plea, which means admitting guilt for the crime and promising not to sue the state of Arkansas in exchange for being released. It was a huge price to pay -- the state will never be held accountable for its role in Echols' imprisonment, Echols can never vote in an American presidential election and he has difficulties leaving the U.S. for travel. He almost couldn't come to Canada to to promote his documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival. But he doesn't regret taking that deal for a second. "I would never live to see outside those walls again if I didn't take the deal." Besides, Echols says, life is too short to hold grudges. "I don't have time to sit and dwell vengefully on the people who did this."

Now that he's free, he's applying this same philosophy to his life outside prison. "There's so much to life to enjoy, so much I want to do," he said. So he's focusing on his future and not on what happened to him. "I always felt that this case does not define me. I refuse to let this case define me."

Related links:

Day 6: Subscribe to the podcast