Life After Death: Eighteen Years on Death Row by Damien Echols
Publisher: Atlantic Books 2014 (first published 2012)
“In 1993, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – who have come to be known as the West Memphis Three – were arrested for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas. The ensuing trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony, and public hysteria. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison; while 18-year-old Echols, deemed the ringleader, was sentenced to death. In a shocking turn of events, all three men were released in August 2011. Now Echols shares his story in full.”
Don’t judge me, but I am fascinated by prisons, prison life and prisoners, and particularly those on death row. It is a macabre fascination – the whole idea of prison absolutely terrifies me, but sometimes I just can’t help it reading about it.
I came to this book after watching Making A Murderer, the Netflix documentary highlighting the case of Steven Avery. I had never heard of Damien Echols or this case – living in the UK we tend to hear about mass school shootings and spree killings, but I think this one passed us by. So I went into this completely blind and unbiased. And I came out feeling slightly unwell with a rather bad taste in my mouth.
Damien and I started off on the wrong foot when he proclaimed that he didn’t want this book to be read by those with a ghoulish fascination of death row – words to that effect (I’d look it up, but I’ve given the book to my brother). Frankly, if you write a book called Life After Death: 18 Years on Death Row, you’re going to attract a certain kind of reader who IS interested in death row and all the horrors it entails, and I certainly fall into that camp, rightly or wrongly. So I think I read this book with a background feeling of guilt that the author actually didn’t want me to read it at all. Anyway, let’s move on from that.
There was a very long winded build up to the actual crime, parts of which were certainly interesting and lead the reader to the conclusion that Echols had a pretty grim childhood and early life. The details of the trial are a little thin on the ground (in fact I had to resort to Google to find out more), and if you’re looking for any kind of evidence to the fact that Echols and his friends were innocent of this crime you will have to look elsewhere. For much of this book, Echols comes across as a very angry, bitter, selfish individual – perhaps rightly so (I’m sure I’d be bitter if I’d been on death row for 18 years for a crime I didn’t commit). But there is no hint of forgiveness, no sign of any empathy for the parents of the murdered boys.
Maybe the reason I took a dislike to Echols is because of the feelings he stirred up within myself. I SHOULD feel sorry for this young man who was incarcerated for half his life for a crime he didn’t commit. And of course, it is a terrible injustice. But *spoiler alert* the fact that the three of them admitted they committed this crime in order to be set free just doesn’t sit right with me. If I was innocent, I would proclaim my innocence to the death. I think. Who knows what I would actually do in the same circumstances, but I would hope that I would come out of such an experience with a sense of forgiveness, some understanding for the victims of the crime, some hope for the future. Echols seems to have none of this, but certainly likes to name drop the celebrities who fought his cause.