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Damien Echols discusses life "West of Memphis"

Echols poses for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City
Echols poses for a portrait during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City

By Zorianna Kit

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Damien Echols was just a teenager when he and his two friends were tried and convicted of the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993, a case that became known as the West Memphis Three.

Echols, along with fellow teens Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, are thought by some to be innocent of the crime and over the years, several documentaries have been made about them. Support from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson and other celebrities has helped raise awareness of their case.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released from prison last August in a legal maneuver known as an "Alford Plea," whereby the men plead guilty in their own best interest while asserting innocence.

Now their case is the subject of a documentary, "West of Memphis," produced by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh, along with Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis. The movie looks at their case, interviews them in jail and tracks them after leaving prison.

Over the weekend at the Sundance Film Festival for the world premiere of the film, Echols, now 37-years-old, sat down with Reuters to talk about the documentary, his old life on death row and what his newfound freedom has been like.

Q: When Peter Jackson began officially funding your defense in 2006, did you secretly wish this big-time filmmaker would make a documentary to bring more attention to the case?

A: "I didn't really think of that. One, I was too busy just trying to survive day to day in the environment that I was in. Also we had a lot of high-profile supporters and friends that have helped us over the years who chose to publicly stay behind the scenes. I thought perhaps that would have been the same in this case, but Peter and Fran both were extremely hands on. It's not like they just threw money at it and walked off. They were involved in every single step of the process from forensic testing to hiring investigators to come in and talk to the witnesses. So that's really all I was thinking about at the time. The first priority for us, and for them, was always the case. The film is the icing on the cake."

Q: In the documentary, you say your case is nothing out of the ordinary. It happens all the time. Why do you think the media spotlight shined on you three?

A: "I think it was because of the outrageousness of the claims the prosecution made in the beginning. They brought a lot of attention on the case with all the claims of satanic cults and orgies and all this sort of thing. That made people want to see what was going on in the case. In that way, their own strategy sort of backfired on them in the end."

Q: You were on death row and in solitary confinement, with only one hour out per day. How did that impact the filming?

A: "Whenever (director) Amy (Berg) came in, they told her she had one hour to do her interview. And they stood there and timed her. And as soon as an hour was up, they ran her out."

Q: And only one hour out a day out of solitary confinement?

A: "Well they say you get one hour out, but basically I was in a super maximum security prison. So what that means is for the hour out, they take you out of your cell and put you in another cell. So I wasn't outside at all in somewhere between 8 to 10 years."

Q: Any health issues as a result of that ?

A: "I'm slowly recovering due to better nutrition now, being able to get proper exercise and fresh air and things like that. But one of the things that was really damaged was my eyesight due to the fact of not having any natural light and not being able to see anything at a distance. It caused tremendous damage to my eyes."

Q: Are you getting any care now?

A: "Since I've been out we've been seeing doctors and dentists and trying to get me back to semi-normal. I had a lot of nerve damage in my teeth just from being beaten by prison guards. There's almost no dental care in prison. They don't do crowns or root canals or anything like that. If you're in pain, either you live in pain or you let 'em pull your teeth out."

Q: How do you move on? Is it even possible?

A: "I would like to do things, accomplish things that stand on their own merits. I don't mind having to talk about this stuff now. But at the same time I don't always want to be known for the rest of my life, as when my name comes up it being synonymous with, 'oh yeah, that's that guy who used to be on death row.' I want to do things in the art world and in the literary world that stand on their own merits, that aren't there just because of the freak show appeal."

Q: You've been out of jail for four months, and you've already taken a trip to Australia to visit Peter and Fran. Now you're at a film festival surrounded by snow!

A: "I haven't had it in almost 20 years now. It's one of the things that I absolutely missed the most. When I was sitting in that prison cell, I would think about how great it would be to see snow again. And now it finally happened."

Q: What are your plans for the future as husband and wife?

A: "Just to keep living, moving forward. Try to continue to grow as people and as a couple. And try to do whatever we can to bring more magic into our lives."

(Reporting By Zorianna Kit; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

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