West of Memphis, a new documentary from Oscar nominated director Amy Berg, details the efforts to find justice for Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and James Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three.
Convicted on dubious evidence in 1994 of the murder of three young boys, they became a cause celeb, with stars like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder working to exonerate them.
The outcome of the 17-year crusade to earn a new trial for the trio is well known — no spoilers here — and the movie ends on a high note, with the men granted their freedom after 18 years and 78 days in prison.
A year after his release Echols talked about adjusting to life on the outside.
“At the time I got out I had been in solitary confinement for almost a decade,” he told me in September, “so I literally went from being in solitary confinement one day to the next being thrown out into the world.
“Out here it is like having to choose constantly. You make no choices in prison. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of energy. I’m having to learn things all over again. Even like how to go to the bank or use an ATM. Or use a computer.”
Despite being in “a state of deep, deep, profound shock and trauma for at least two months when I first got out,” he says life on the inside was worse.
“The level of stress, anxiety and fear that you live in is beyond comprehension to most people. You never even go to sleep all the way. Just the slightest noise wakes you up. There were times in the prison when you hear a noise and you’re on your feet, ready to fight before your eyes even open up, before you’re even conscious of what’s going on.”
These days he lives in Massachusetts with his wife Lorris (they married while he was behind bars), has written a book titled Life After Death and wants to do Tarot readings at MOMA asm performance art, but the adjustment to life on the outside continues.
“Life since then has been about learning to put one foot in front of the other. I have so much fear and anxiety just about surviving in the world that most of what I’m doing and dealing with is about coping and how to get beyond that. That’s all I’m focused on.”