When Damien Echols was 18 years old he was convicted of the murders of three 8-year old boys in Arkansas. He spent the following 18 years of his life as an innocent man on death row before being released in 2011. In his book “Life After Death” he narrates a life spent enduring mental and physical deterioration. At the same time it’s an inspiring story of survival and about the second reality he created, in order to stay sane.
In 1993 Damien Echols,along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., was arrested and charged for the murder of three 8-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. More akin to a witch-hunt, the trial was a parade of lies, coerced confessions and fabricated testimonies.
Damien Echols received the death penalty while Baldwin and Misskelley got life sentences. Echols was 18, Baldwin was 17 and Misskelley 16. They were just teenage boys who listened to metal. Social misfits in a Baptist church-going community in the deep south. They did more than just stand out, they created moral panic. Echols especially pushed the community’s buttons with his black-clad goth appearance. He quickly became the main target of character assassinations, labelled a satanist and ringleader of the trio. By the police.
On August 19th 2011 Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released as a result of tireless efforts by lawyers, celebrities and activists. The trio, largely known as The Westmemphis Three, has had their fair share of public support from people like Peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were finally freed by entering what in legal terms would be referred to as entering an Alford Plea. A technicality by which they had to accept a guilty verdict as a trade-off for release. Three innocent men, whose entire youth was stolen by a corrupted and perverted justice system, had to confess to a crime they didn’t commit.
It took me three weeks to even open “Life After Death” after buying it. I didn’t know if I was ready to see it all in writing. As painful as Echol’s life-story is, this book is filled with humour and unyielding life-affirming attitude. I came out on the other side feeling mostly inspired and empowered (even though the revelations of a former death row inmate can easily make you want to crawl up into a little ball of angst and take a little break from the outside world). A large part of the book is composed of old scribblings and diary entries. As he reveals in the book, he began keeping a journal as soon as he got to death row in 1994. He took a habit of not dating his writing, as it was “simply too painful to look at days, months, years slipping past, the reality outside just beyond my reach”.
How Echols survived both mentally and physically is extraordinary. Living in a place designed to break him he found ways to build himself up, developing an inner strength that I think few could ever attain. With shear will power and a lust for life, he created another world inside that concrete hell, putting all his energy into the future and not the present.
His writing has a way of wanting you to become a better person. The one theme that reverberates throughout the book is understanding that positive change has to start within you. Whether you’re locked in a cell on death row or unable to escape your own personal prison, you’re the one holding the key to true freedom. That’s what “Life After Death” was about for me. As painful as it must have been living a daily hell, struggling to maintain sanity, maintaining a relationship with his wife on the outside and having his hopes of being freed slashed time and time again, he leaves no dark trails. This book contains no bitterness or anger, only beauty and hope, shaping you between every single line.