Life After Death
By Damien Echols
Blue Rider Press
399 pages, $26.95
By Lee Coppola
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
He was raised dirt-poor in an Arkansas trailer park. As a teenager he was a Goth before that label had been created for young men and women who wore black and sported trench coats. His appearance led juvenile authorities in his small town to believe he took part in satanic worship.
Then three 8-year-old boys were found dead in an Arkansas wooded area, their bodies mutilated. Fingers of suspicion pointed to him, and eventually he and two friends were convicted of the murders.
Damian Echols was 18 when he was sentenced to death.
His haunting memoir details the troubled life he led before prison, then follows him behind bars and the troubles he faced while waiting to die. He spends little time on the murders, not even bringing them in to the picture until page 219. He was railroaded, he writes, by unscrupulous police and incompetent defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges. “We were nothing but poor trailer trash to them, and they thought no one would ever miss us,” he writes. For further insight, he urges readers to view websites devoted to his case.
What makes “Life” special is Echols’ honesty and superb writing. Although he left school after ninth grade, he was a voracious reader and spent his years behind bars and in solitary confinement writing daily in a journal and continuing his reading.
He was distraught, innocent yet facing death in a hellish confinement, so he directed his sorrow and feeling of injustice into written words.
He had professed his innocence to no avail, and it wasn’t until the airing of “Paradise Lost,” an HBO documentary about the case, that the world outside his prison walls paid any attention and the West Memphis Three became a cause celebre.
He dedicates the book to the woman he married while behind bars, the catalyst for the support, both legal and financial, that eventually forced an embarrassed state to save jurisprudence’s face and free him and his co-defendants.
Echols pulls no punches in describing the life he spent always walking on concrete floors. “Prison is a freak show,” he tells readers. “I will be your master of ceremonies on a guided tour of this small corner of hell.”
The hell he details has guards prone to assaulting prisoners and destroying their possessions, inmates more suited for an insane asylum than prison and conditions that made even the squalor of his life growing up seem comfortable. Perhaps it inspired eloquence such as this:
“Time spoils quickly in here, and it smells like rotten meat. Every day adds a little more meat, barely noticeable at first, but eventually it can crush you to death. In this place your life can be measured by how long you keep fighting. The ghouls can sense if you have any life behind your eyes, and they move in to extinguish it.”
“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.”
In some respects, “Life” educates readers about how prisoners manage with few amenities inside their locked doors. Many adopt pets – rats, mice, birds, snakes, crickets. Echols explains how, with a little creativity, the cell’s light bulb becomes a stove to heat liquids and even a microwave, if adapted carefully.
The notoriety of his case led to a myriad of legal activity supported by celebrities such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, singer Henry Rollins and actor Johnny Depp. Another documentary, “West of Memphis,” also featured the case.
Echols and his friends were freed after they accepted Arkansas’ offer of an Alford plea, a kind of “I didn’t do it, but I’ll take the plea because you might have enough evidence to convict me.” To Echols, it was his get-out-of-jail card, and he didn’t want to spend four or five more years behind bars as his various appeals continued to wend their way through the court system.
After all, he was a married man, a father to an 18-year-old son born shortly after he was sentenced and had a longing to experience what he could not in prison.
“I miss the rain. I miss standing beneath the sky and looking up at the moon and stars. I miss the wind. I miss cats and dogs. I miss wearing real clothes, having a real toothbrush, using a real pen, drinking iced tea, eating ice cream, and going for walks.”
Although he didn’t mention it in the book, Echols said in an NPR interview that Stephen King’s books were his inspiration as a writer, that he read King’s work over and over and developed an ear for the written word. For that, King deserves gratitude from readers of “Life After Death.”
Former prosecutor Lee Coppola is the retired Dean of St. Bonaventure Unversity’s Jandoli Journalism School and a recent inductee into Buffalo’s Broadcasting Hall of Fame.