Life After Death: The Shocking True Story of an Innocent Man on Death Row by Damien Echols (Text Publishing, $40)
Reviewed by Kelly Bold
It’s hard not to bristle with impotent ire at the injustices meted out to Damien Echols. As the so-called ringleader of the “West Memphis Three”, he withered in an Arkansas Death Row cell for 18 years for the supposedly satanic killings of three eight-year-old boys: a crime he did not commit, of which there was not a scrap of evidence linking him or his two co-accused to, and for which he was blatantly set up by corrupt police.
What happened next almost reads like a soap-opera storyline, but it was real life – Damien’s real life. A determined woman named Lorri Davis became his pen pal, then tireless freedom crusader, then wife. She gave up her New York life to move near to him for visits of just three hours a week – all the while working relentlessly to clear his name, pulling in global superstars like our own Sir Peter Jackson, Johnny Deep and Eddie Vedder to her campaign, and in August 2011, securing his release.
Life After Death: The Shocking True Story of an Innocent Man on Death Row is a beautiful chameleon. At times, Echols’ writing takes on a lyrical quality as he explores his deep nostalgia for winter (his favourite season), the comfort and strength he finds in meditation and prayer, and the soul-destroying despair that often threatens to envelop him. He writes: “It used to be that a certain wrongness danced across the ocean’s surface, crackling like chain lightening. Now the despair is more subtle, sinking silently beneath the waves and coming to rest in dark and poisonous places. The surface becomes pallid and exudes a sick, gray, greasy feeling that eventually drives you mad. It’s an endless cycle that breeds a never-ending supply of frustration. It’s heartache in the color of lead, and nothing in the world can heal it.”
At other times he is a master of (possibly unintentional) comedy which lightens the tragic circumstances of his imprisonment with amusing descriptions of the madder Death Row inmates, their bizarre rituals and behaviours. Yet his story is also a gritty and unrelenting expose into the American penitentiary and the violence and hatred that are dished out daily and unchecked by prison guards in a system that breeds dehumanisation. As Echols puts it: “In the end…if you rolled all the deprivations into one thing, it would be this: I miss being treated like a human being”.
Whatever he writes about, Echols is unflinchingly candid. He describes his “white trash” childhood, which included a stint living in a ramshackle hut with no running water or electricity in the middle of a corn field that was regularly aerially dusted with pesticides. He details his unreliable mother and father, whose parental love and attention were at best hit and miss, and the solace of his difficult teenage years: exploring different religions, dressing in “Goth” style and a love of death metal – unremarkable teenage activities that would later be used to paint him as the embodiment of evil to a frenzied public baying for vengeance.
Although Echols doesn’t delve into the details of the tainted evidence or false courtroom testimony at his trial (so ably explored in first the Paradise Lost documentaries and more recently in doco West of Memphis, co-produced by Peter Jackson and Echols), he does explore the circumstances of his wrongful arrest and the vendetta against him by local law-enforcement officials. Their relentless and unwarranted pursuit of him – the catalyst for what unfolded in the courtroom – makes for shocking reading, as does the fact that no one, not his family nor his lawyers, stepped up to help him when he so desperately needed them and couldn’t help himself.
Echols’ eventual release from prison, so hard fought for by Lorri and his supporters, came at a terrible cost: financially, physically, emotionally. And though now a free man, he ends his story needing closure: “Ultimately, I know that freedom isn’t enough. I’m a young man, and the only way all three of us will be able to live the rest of our lives is being exonerated. I need the person or persons who murdered those three children, and who put me on Death Row for eighteen years, found and brought to justice.”
If anyone deserves justice, it’s those six innocent West Memphis boys: the three young murder victims and the three wrongly accused and imprisoned.
The deplorable facts of his case, the lack of nurturing and love in his childhood, the bleak reality he faced for 18 years in death row – all of this could have made Life After Death a dark and disturbing read, and at times it is. But it is also a beautifully written, intensely compelling read that doesn’t drown in melancholy or self-pity. It’s also a testament to the strength of Damien Echols’ character, the sustaining power of his spirituality and the unwavering love of his amazing wife.