by BJW Nashe

Damien Echols was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Arkansas in 1994. He spent the next 18 years on death row, suffering through a brutal and inhumane ordeal that would probably drive most of us insane. He persevered, however, and with the help of a considerable network of support, he was unconditionally released from prison in 2011. Now he has written a memoir about his harrowing experiences, appropriately titled Life After Death.

Damien Echols8If you only have time to read a handful of books this year, Life After Death should be one of them. The book was released in hardcover in September 2012; the trade paperback version went on sale on May 13 of last year. Most people who have read this superb work can’t say enough good things about it. The celebrity blurbs on the dust jacket are glowing with praise. Johnny Depp praises Echols for for joining the ranks of imprisoned luminaries such as Dostoevsky and Jean Genet. Where Life After Death best belongs, I think, is on your neighborhood high school’s required reading list, alongside such classics as The Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird. This is a great book for the classroom. In an ideal world, educators and parents and teenagers all would be straight up devouring it. And anyone working in law enforcement would find the book impossible to put down.

The utter failure of the legal system that resulted in the convictions of the West Memphis Three–Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley–has been explored in numerous articles, books, and films, most notably West of Memphis, the 2012 documentary film directed by Amy Berg, and produced by Echols and Sir Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame). Investigative journalist Mara Leveritt’s book, Devil’s Knot, undertakes a thorough analysis of the case. Life After Death represents Echols’s own version of what happened to him. Yet this book is much more than a legal fiasco tell-all. Life After Death rises to the level of great literature by delivering a powerful affirmation of the strength of the human spirit, even in the face of horrifying injustice and cruelty.

dame2Echols is a talented writer, capable of hard-boiled description as well as poetic reflection. Who knows? Given a different set of circumstances, he might be living the sort of life enjoyed by acclaimed novelist Michael Chabon. Perhaps he will end up doing so, after all. He has an inquisitive mind, a keen eye for riveting details, a dark sense of humor, a bit of swagger, and a willingness to face the worst aspects of his life without succumbing to bitterness. Life After Death unfolds through an effective back-and-forth narrative structure. Recollections of his childhood, and the teenage years leading up to his incarceration, are interspersed with sections in the present tense that read as if they were ripped straight from the prison experience. This approach allows Echols considerable flexibility and immediacy as he tells us how it all went down. The end result is a gripping memoir that succeeds on many levels–legal, sociological, literary, cultural, psychological, and spiritual.

Damien Echols9First and foremost is the legal issue. This is a story of injustice, pure and simple. In his book, Echols is wise not to rehash all the details of his criminal case, which has been dissected at length elsewhere. Suffice to say that in 1993, the bodies of three eight year-old boys were found dead–the bodies naked and hogtied near a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. The public was understandably outraged. Rumors of Satanism swirled around in the media. The police, under extreme pressure to solve the case, settled on arresting Echols, 18 at the time, and his two younger teenaged acquaintances. Echols was considered an “outsider” in the community due to his taste in music (goth and metal), his fashion sense (black clothing and piercings), and his interests in horror literature and the occult. He was a school drop-out who’d had minor run-ins with the law, but nothing serious. The fact that he had dark features (he’s part Native American), and shared a first name with the lead character in the antichrist film The Omen didn’t help. He became an easy scapegoat as the “ringleader” of a “Satanic cult.” This is Bible Belt country; people take Satanism very seriously there. A lynch mob mentality set in. Trials were held amidst a flurry of public outrage. All of the West Memphis Three ended up being convicted of murdering the boys, even though the prosecution had no concrete evidence as proof of their guilt. There was no murder weapon, no witnesses, no physical evidence at the scene of the crime. The prosecution put an “expert” on the stand, a man with a mail-order doctoral degree, to talk about the evils of the devil-worship. Items taken from Echols’s bedroom–random poetry, drawings, fake skulls, etc.–were displayed as “evidence.” Echols’s defense attorney went along for the ride, because he didn’t want to anger the judge, with whom he needed to remain in good standing for future cases. [For a relatively short, yet still detailed account of the case, see Aphrodite Jones’s hour-long documentary for the TV show “48 Hours.” This segment provides a decent overview of the flawed trial and conviction. Besides, anybody named Aphrodite who does True Crime is worth paying attention to.]

dame3In Life After Death, Echols supplies us with plenty of impressionistic thoughts and details that highlight the infuriating absurdity of the process leading up to his arrest and continuing on through his trial. He shares what it felt like to have to wear a bullet-proof vest each day as he was transported to and from court. He expresses the anger and disbelief he felt as a young man subjected to the trumped up proceedings, knowing all along he was innocent. Yet, as he points out, his case wasn’t all that unusual. Such legal failures occur more frequently than we’d like to admit, especially with people like him, who come from the lower end of the social ladder, can’t afford skilled attorneys, and find themselves on the wrong end of public opinion.

Which brings us to the sociological importance of Life After Death. Some of Echols’s best writing is devoted to his upbringing in rural Arkansas. “Lower class” doesn’t begin to capture the brutal, grinding poverty of his childhood. He is careful not to demonize his mother, father, or step-father; while there was certainly some abuse, he knows that many kids have it far worse. The real problem here is simply the ugly fact of being dirt-poor, so poor that necessities for basic nutrition and hygiene are scarce. When his family at one point is able to move into a low rent trailer park, this feels like landing on easy street. Consider Echols’s description of one of the family’s worst dwellings:

arkan“This was an honest-to-God shack, made of old clapboard that would have collapsed in a strong wind; it was built on an old Indian burial mound. The entire house consisted of four rooms covered with an aluminum roof. There was no running water or electricity to speak of, no heat or air conditioner, and half of the front porch had caved in on itself. Looking at it you would believe that such structures were inhabited only in third-world countries… We had fourteen large dogs that lived underneath the house.”

Echols’s account of his childhood reminds us how serious the problem of extreme poverty is throughout America. The fact that the very poor tend to be ignored these days, in favor of the much more palatable discourse surrounding the “middle class,” is a big mistake. And Echols’s story shows us some of the consequences of this mistake. Crushing poverty does not result in a responsible, enlightened populace with a strong sense of civic justice. Instead, you have small-minded, fearful, superstitious communities in which violence and evil seem to fester. At one point in Life After Death, Echols sums up the nature of his hometown in a single sentence. “People were claiming to have seen a dog with a man’s head.” Here is a longer riff on the hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken, fundamentalist Christian landscape in which he was raised:

ark “Down here in the deep, dark South we know and live with the real world. Candy-Land idealism is quietly suffocated in the relentless humidity. This is the world where the fist meets face. This is where the calluses on a man’s hand are bigger than his conscience, and dreams get drowned in sweat and tears. Mutually assured destruction rides the roads on gun racks in the back windows of pickup trucks. The goodness of human nature gets packed away with the childhood toys, and the only third eye I have is the one I use to watch my back. Everyone puts on their Sunday best and pays tribute to religion’s slaughterhouse and then dines on a cannibal communion. People put their backs to the stone in the field and push until their entrails rupture, and they drag their meals from the earth with bleeding hands. Education is foreign to the sunburned beasts of burden, and the painkiller comes in black-labeled Tennessee bottles.”

In this Flannery O’Connor-styled cultural wasteland, Damien Echols didn’t stand a chance when it came to a fair trial. The trial became a witch hunt. Bible-thumpers were yelling at TV news reporters that they wanted to see a public execution of the vile Satanist. In West Memphis in 1994, the fundamentalists were fundamentally ignorant, and fundamentally wrong. They sent an innocent man to death row.

Of course, the Southern Gothic nightmare of West Memphis civilian life, with its churches and trailer parks and scarecrows and whiskey and guns, is a cakewalk compared to prison. Echols lays it all on the line here. “In the movies,” he writes, “it’s always the other prisoners you have to watch out for. In real life, it’s the guards and the administration.” These days we all too easily dismiss torture as a mistake made in the early years of the War on Terror. Torture occurred when suspected terrorists were water-boarded at secret “black sites” overseas, or when prisoners were abused at Abu Ghraib. This is incorrect. In fact, prisoners undergo various forms of torture and abuse every day in American prisons. Echols tells us about starving in solitary confinement,  enduring harsh beatings from guards, and having nothing for meals but inedible food–undercooked fat and gristle with vegetables full of insects and dirt. He tells us about mentally ill or disabled individuals who are abused and executed. He tells us about sadistic guards who enjoy their jobs far too much, relishing every opportunity to degrade, demean, and punish. A particularly revealing illustration of administrative cruelty involves Christmas. This holiday, eagerly anticipated by inmates, was the one day of the year in which they were able to receive gift baskets containing fresh fruit, candy, and assorted treats. One year, administration simply put a stop to this. No more gift baskets for Christmas. Prisoners didn’t deserve them.

Aside from the blatantly inhumane treatment, Echols goes to great length in Life After Death to show us what daily life feels like on death row. And while he is more than willing to marvel at the freak show perversions and strange quirks of inmates nicknamed Chuckles, Catface, Mudpie, and Nu-Nu, where Echols really stretches out as a writer are his extended meditations on the gut-wrenching despair of incarceration.

crag“At home I used to walk through emotional wastelands where the lines on craggy faces were so deep that the wind whistled through them. People fell in and out of my life, but it was the places that really mattered. Even now I can feel them tugging at my sleeve and spinning around in my head. All the old stories have it wrong, because it’s not the ghost that haunts the house; it’s the house that haunts the ghost.

“My days have somehow become as rich and twisted as the kudzu vines that grew around my grandmother’s house back home. It’s almost too much to take, and my heart is on the verge of breaking. I’m overwhelmed with things I can’t even articulate. I’m haunted by the way overhanging leaves used to cast reflections on asphalt puddles. I want to go home. Never have I wanted anything so badly. Ghosts are using my head for a neon disco, and I want to go home. My heart is a haunted house that I cannot leave behind. Everything here vibrates slower than mud, and no one has a soul.

“Time spoils quickly in here, and it smells like rotten meat. Every day adds a little more weight, barely noticeable at first, but eventually it will crush you to death. In this place your life can be measured by how long you can keep fighting. The ghouls can sense it if you have any life behind your eyes, and they move in to extinguish it. The guards, the prisoners, the administration–the energy spirals downward forever, creating a hellish staircase that leads nowhere. The most frightening part is how they’re all too thick to realize what they’re doing. They seem to believe that if they keep digging in the same hole, they’ll eventually reach heaven.

“My exhaustion is beyond bone-deep. It has seeped into my soul, and every day it robs me of a little more of what I once was. Of what I was meant to be. There is no rest here, and there is no life. When I try to look ahead the light seems a little further away each day. There is despair on my breath and no savior in sight. They say it’s death only if you accept it, but more and more these days I’m feeling like I don’t have a choice. I keep saying to myself, “I will not stop. I will not stop.” If for no other reason than that I will it to be so. If everything else fails, I will keep moving ahead on will-power alone. There has to be some magick in something, somewhere.”

Damien Echols In Discussion With Johnny DeppFor Echols, it turned out there was some magick somewhere, in the form of a whole network of outside support that refused to give up on him. As his case continued to gain attention, numerous activists and celebrities and rock stars–including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Henry Rollins–got involved in various ways, lending their voices and their pocketbooks to aid in saving Echols’s life. Naturally, this led to a certain amount of backlash. Some people, without a full understanding of the facts, figured Echols was guilty, and just looking to get off on a “technicality.” Other cynical types simply mistrusted or disdained this level of celebrity support. (Consider the problematic efforts of Norman Mailer in regard to Jack Henry Abbott.) To any haters out there, I would argue strongly that in this instance, Depp, Vedder, Rollins, and all the others are beyond reproach. They did the right thing, helping to get an innocent man set free. We should only regret that every other wrongfully convicted inmate is unable, for whatever reason, to receive the same amount of public attention as did Echols. People are working on this, however. If you are interested, please visit The Innocence Project in order to stay informed and possibly get involved.

Celebrity support was not the only kind of magick working on Echols’s behalf. He was also helped by certain remarkable individuals committed to providing spiritual guidance to those behind bars. One character who had a huge influence on Echols was a man named Ju San, who had been convicted of truly horrific crimes he committed as a criminal and heroin addict. While on death row, however, Ju San had become an ordained Rinzai zen priest who now enjoyed serving as a guide for other prisoners seeking spiritual growth. As Echols puts it, to not seek some form of spiritual sustenance in prison is to be consumed by the place. When Ju San was eventually executed, his own teacher, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking monk named Kobutsu, introduced himself to Echols and then guided him through a period of study and reflection lasting several years. It may be difficult to conceive of a mystical journey occurring deep inside the belly of beast which is our criminal justice system. But in a sense, for Echols, that’s exactly what happened.

Damien Echols3Life After Death could have turned into a much more angry and bitter book that it is. Echols could have delivered a real diatribe, and who would have blamed him. The fact that his book instead points the way forward, through the anger and pain, toward a hopeful, tough-minded humanism, speaks volumes for the character of the man. This is where Echols’s personal magick comes into play. Instead of allowing prison to drive him crazy, or turn him into a raving, hate-filled maniac, Echols used his wretched incarcertation as an opportunity–an admittedly shocking and painful opportunity–for personal growth and development. “Without books,” he says, “I would have gone insane long ago.” He read thousands of books behind bars. He kept a journal (parts of which were worked into the material of Life After Death). He managed to produce visual artworks. He learned the practice of zazen, sometimes sitting in meditation for up to five or six hours a day. None of this led him to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude, or to make exaggerated claims regarding “truth” or “enlightenment.” The man from Arkansas sought no refuge in Candy-Land. Yet even on death row, Echols was able to better himself as a human being. He was able to fall in love and get married in a prison wedding to a lovely woman named Lorrie, who worked tirelessly on the outside for his release. Echols proudly states that he had “the only Buddhist wedding ceremony in the history of the Arkansas prison system.”

We should all be grateful that in Echols’s case, justice was finally achieved in 2011. New technology for analyzing DNA evidence, coupled with the perseverance of his advocates, meant that after 18 years, the state could no longer keep him locked up. Echols now lives as a free man with his wife in New York City. The transition was not always easy. He writes about stumbling around the city in a state of shock at first. The sensory overload was incredible. And of course Echols still bears deep emotional and psychological scars from his ordeal. But he is dealing with them in an admirable manner. For a man treated so unjustly to then go on and write a memoir as affirmative as Life After Death is a remarkable achievement, and we wish him continued success. Let’s allow Damien Echols to have the last word here; he has come out of his hellish experience with a powerful message we can all take to heart:

“I believe there are only two unstoppable forces in the universe. One is love, the other is intelligence. I also believe that a person’s capacity to love is directly related to their intelligence level, just as hate corresponds to a person’s level of ignorance. The only thing that makes it impossible for the system to destroy you and grind your spirit into nothing is to be more intelligent than it is.”

 

11 Responses to Damien Echols Lives On After Life On Death Row For A Crime He Never Committed…

  1. Tom Davidson says:

    This is absolutely top shelf. I saw (on HBO?) a documentary years ago re the case. Fast forward 20 years. Brutal but uplifting. Very well done. Very!

    • BJW Nashe says:

      Thanks, Tom. The fact that Damien has been able to turn his horrible experience into an opportunity for spiritual growth is very inspiring.

  2. Pitchforks says:

    “Crushing poverty does not result in a responsible, enlightened populace with a strong sense of civic justice.”…..and yet it did in the case of Damien Echols.
    Beautiful, just beautiful. Although I have followed this case through various documentaries, somehow the fact that he had written a book had passed me by. Thank you for bringing attention to it. I have always been struck by how his fortitude and profound intelligence shone through when he was giving interviews through the glass, or later sitting in his prison garb. This man has an extraordinary poetic grasp of words. I am stunned by just the snippets you quote here, so now must get the book.
    One thing that has always amazed and even infuriated me when watching the trial footage was how he could sit there so calmly as an 18-year-old and listen to the preposterous things said about him in court. I hope he talks at length about that on the book.
    We must, however, not forget Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley who perhaps are not as striking visually or intellectually from a media perspective. The three of them were not in fact “unconditionally” released in 2011. They came out after conceding to an Alford plea, where they did not dispute that there had been “enough evidence to convict” them, which is patently crap. In fact, Jason Baldwin was ethically very much opposed to going along with the Alford plea as it compromised their assertions of innocence, even though he knew it could mean he would never be released, but he bit the bullet because he knew that for Damien it would ultimately mean his being executed. There is very moving footage of Damien acknowledging this just after they were released and of them hugging.
    Again, just beautiful….
    Thanks Nashe, this was a fantastic review that really communicated both the intellectual and emotional spirit of the book.

    • BJW Nashe says:

      Thanks for the comments, Pitch. And thanks for clarifying the role of the Alford Plea in all this. Damien’s book is incredible. I’m sure you’ll be blown away by it, just as I have been.

  3. Lise LaSalle says:

    I have been writing a piece on the West Memphis 3 for a while but after reading this one, I don’t know if I want to continue. Mine is more about the legal aspect but it pales in comparison to this great article on Echols. The book is very interesting.

  4. Darcia Helle says:

    I bought the hardcover as soon as it came out. Well written, brutal story. My older son was very much into the goth scene, and was often judged by teachers and other parents based on his appearance and interests. Echols story made me really think about how easily a community can turn against a kid based solely on their fear of difference. We’d like to think these things can’t happen in our legal system, but it probably does more often than we know. Echols was fortunate to have caught the attention of some powerfully persuasive people.

    Great post.

  5. Rick says:

    BJW – You’ve written another excellent book review! It really makes me want to buy and read the book. Echols is a remarkable individual who turned a grave injustice on its head and emerged from prison an even better man.

    I’m amazed at how easy it is to convict people based on little or no evidence, especially in the backwoods areas of this country. Have we really progressed all that much from the bad-old-days of the Salem Witch Trials?

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