REVELATIONS: Freedom from prison

Sept. 21, 2012 at 4:21 a.m.

Jennifer Preyss

Jennifer Preyss

I caught a few moments of a televised interview between Anderson Cooper and Damien Echols the other day.

Cooper invited the 36-year-old convicted murderer on his daytime talk show to discuss Echols' new book, "Life After Death," a chronicle of his experience on death row for 18 years - for a crime many believe he didn't commit.

Echols was arrested in 1994 with two other teenagers, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin.

Together, they were known as the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers who were convicted of satanically murdering three second-grade Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Ark.

Echols was the only one to receive a death sentence. Misskelley and Baldwin were given life sentences in prison.

Around West Memphis, the teens were known as outsiders, gothic-dressed outcasts and poor, white trash.

I saw video clips of Echols around the time of the murders with long hair and long finger nails that illustrated his non-conformist attitude.

But listening to Echols' story on Cooper's show, the weight of his 18-year imprisonment felt heavy on my shoulders. So many of his years were spent alone in isolation, without sunlight, or human interaction, without dining utensils or hope.

It's hard to imagine the suffering in prison every day, knowing you're going to die. I'm sure after about the second year in shackles, I'd probably start wondering, 'What's the point of living if death is imminent?'

To pass the time behind bars, Echols wrote and journaled his thoughts, exercised his body and mind and practiced Zen Buddhism.

He spoke out about his innocence to the media when he could, but he mainly attempted to immerse himself in a daily schedule that would seclude his mind from thoughts of injustice.

In time, new evidence began to mount in his favor, scientific evidence appeared to exonerate him from the scene. Families of the murdered Cub Scouts began believing they'd convicted the wrong men.

Last August, the West Memphis Three were released, on the condition that they would admit guilt for the crimes.

They agreed to the deal, but believe the deal was not reflective of reconciling innocent men from their 18 years in prison.

But somehow, Echols seems empowered by the experience. Gone are his long nails and odd personality. He's a man now. He thinks freely. And from behind bars he was granted mental and spiritual freedom to love and hate without consequence.

In the few moments I allowed myself to consider the power of that thought, I became envious of his freedom.

Think about how powerful it is to be that free. To think and feel without limits.

Echols' imprisonment also reminded me of another falsely accused man.

I started thinking of the Apostle Paul, who some refer to as the greatest Christian who ever lived. He was wrongly imprisoned, beaten and flogged, and housed in what I can only imagine were horrible, unsanitary conditions for first century prison dwellings.

But it was there, in prison, where he began writing Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, or the Pauline prison epistles.

It's from behind those prison walls, Paul writes that Jesus came to save all sinners, of whom he is the worst. It's where Paul writes to urge the people to speak gently to the elderly, and care for the widows. It's where he writes about God's love and mercy and provision for his life.

It's where he learns to appreciate his mission and purpose, which would for centuries help promote the Christian faith around the globe.

I thought about the bravery of the two men, and what it must be like not to give up on God or life when everything around you is begging you to concede.

Now that Echols is out of prison, he's produced a movie on the murders called, "West of Memphis," released his tell-all book, and he's circling the press junkets.

He's a free man these days, and free to tell his story. He's also free in body and mind.

I want to experience that kind of freedom one day. I want that kind of life after death.

Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or



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