Published by Blue Rider Press on September 18, 2012
Genres: Memoir, Non-Fiction
In 1993 three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Miskelley Jr were arrested and charged with the murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The ensuing trial was rife with inconsistencies, false testimony and superstition. Echols was accused of, among other things, practising witchcraft and satanic rituals – a result of the “satanic panic” prevalent in the media at the time. Baldwin and Miskelley were sentenced to life in prison. Echols, deemed the ringleader, was sentenced to death. He was eighteen years old.
In a shocking reversal of events, all three were suddenly released in August 2011. This is Damien Echols' story in full: from abuses by prison guards and wardens, to descriptions of inmates and deplorable living conditions, to the incredible reserves of patience, spirituality, and perseverance that kept him alive and sane for nearly two decades. Echols also writes about his complicated and painful childhood. Like Dead Man Walking, Life After Death is destined to be a classic.
No matter what your views on crime and punishment in the United States in general, or on the death penalty in particular, Damien Echols’ memoir is certain to move you, challenge you, and devastate you. I only became aware of the “West Memphis Three” story a few years ago. I’ve since watched the HBO “Paradise Lost” documentaries with alternating degrees of sympathy and horror. I’ve always wanted to believe that our justice system functions (mostly) fairly and objectively, despite the occasional awful revelations of prisoners wrongfully imprisoned for years or even executed. Surely these were anomalies. Tales of brutality by prison guards? Well, those guys had it coming as an additional dose of punishment for their crimes. Echols’ beautiful and heart-breaking memoir has forced me to examine my beliefs.
If you have not watched the three “Paradise Lost” documentaries, please do so, as they extensively cover the mind-bogglingly corrupt investigation into the murders of three young boys and the ensuing trial that landed Echols on Death Row and his two co-defendants with life sentences. In particular, the final documentary, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, summarizes the first two films, and includes the events leading up to the trio’s long-awaited freedom. Echols devotes very little time to these events because so much information is already available, but readers of his memoir should view them in order to gain a more complete picture of this travesty. Instead, Echols focuses on his impoverished upbringing and his eighteen years on Death Row, as he and others fought for his exoneration. When he writes of the stifling heat in the tiny, tin-roofed shack he inhabited in his childhood, you can almost feel it yourself. When he writes of mosquitoes feasting on his flesh in his prison cell, I could feel my own skin crawl.
The prison life he depicts is much like what we all imagine from movies and TV shows: abusive guards, horrible food, lack of sleep, etc. But Echols informs us that sadistic guards are the norm, rather than the exception. We also learn about the overwhelming filth, both of the prison itself and of some of the inmates due to their less than stellar hygiene practices. His misery in his cell due to cold winters was dwarfed only by the stifling summers. Time ceases to have any meaning other than bringing him closer to execution. Echols also writes in depth of his spiritual journey that led him from being raised Protestant to exploring Catholicism on his own as a teen. His general thirst for knowledge and his keen interest in spirituality led to an ongoing study of Buddhism while he was imprisoned.
It’s hard to believe that if not for a couple of filmmakers who decided to make a documentary of the trial of the so-called “satanic” murders of three children, Echols may be dead today. These filmmakers quickly realized that the real story was not about Satanism, but rather it was about the entire Arkansas justice system that was willing to throw away the lives of Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. They were garbage – poor white trash, so what did it matter? Who cares if a sick child-killer is still on the loose as long as the public’s bloodlust was sated? Evidence clearing the involvement of the three was not enough for the courts; it was only years of effort on the parts of Echols’ supporters – celebrities and otherwise, and most significantly, his tireless wife, Lorri – that finally forced Arkansas to act. In other words, Echols was freed not by the normal means of little things like evidence, DNA, and alibi, but rather by public shame, scorn, and embarrassment from which Arkansas could no longer hide.
I’ve finished this book, but I still can’t stop thinking about it. It depicts a life that I can barely imagine, but Echols depicts it all unflinchingly and without an ounce of self-pity, to which he is certainly more than entitled. There will never be another memoir like this, not only because Echols’ beautiful writing skill is unlikely to be possessed by any other death row inmate, but also because any who have been wrongfully convicted are unlikely to be spared like Echols.