Dawn Scott speaking with Damien Echols in Salem, Mass. (Photo: John Young, THV11)
CONWAY, Ark. (KTHV) - Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, returned to Arkansas for the first time Monday since being freed from death row.
Echols - who was convicted, sentenced, and later released in the deaths of three boys in West Memphis - has been living in Salem, Massachusetts since his 2011 release. He returned to Arkansas for the first time to speak at the University of Central Arkansas on Monday.
Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, presented a public reading from Echols' 2012 book, Life After Death, at UCA's Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall. Echols shared several personal experiences from prison and how writing served as a way to survive 18 years on death row.
Echols said he grew to fear writing throughout his trial after his personal words were twisted in the media and in court. Eventually, he began writing again as a way to escape prison. He says he also used to writing to preserve his memory.
Echols described prison as "being surrounded by the living dead." He talked about being beaten by guards for 18 days when he was sent to a maximum security prison and how he did not see sunlight on death row for 10 years.
Echols told the audience he wanted readers to walk away from his book, Life After Death, inspired and not depressed. He said the book is about giving hope.
Echols says 35% of his writings from prison were destroyed by guards.
UCA professor Donna Stephens said after receiving complaints about having Echols speak at the university, UCA officials will have increased security prior to and during the event.
"We've had some controversy over the invitation. Some people are still very angry over the 1993 murders, the convictions and also the Alford Plea from two years ago," said Stephens.
UCA says they invited Echols as a writer. He spent the day prior to the evening's event visiting students in writing classes.
Several people attended the reading, including Sarah and Scott Roebuck from Washington, D.C. After following the West Memphis Three story for years, the couple decided to fly all the way to Arkansas to hear from Echols. They spent the weekend visiting West Memphis and seeing all the sights they've read about in his book. They say his story is inspiring and one of miraculous odds.
"The idea that he survived 18 years in prison from writing, meditating, these simple things and he came out of that a rockstar," says Sarah.
To read more about the West Memphis Three, the history of the crimes, and the three victims involved, visit THV's page dedicated to the West Memphis Murders: http://www.thv11.com/news/specials/west_memphis_murder/default.aspx