Damien Echols’ life reads like a lengthy nightmare. One of three Arkansas teens falsely convicted of murdering three 8-year-olds in 1993, Echols spent half his life on death row before being released (though not officially exonerated) in 2011. Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky documented the events surrounding Echols and the other accused teenagers—the “West Memphis Three”—in a trio of excellent documentaries, starting with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills. Through years of frustrating appeals, the case was kept in the public eye by constant attention from celebrities, most notably Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp.
Now Echols is telling his own side of the story in his book Life After Death. Those looking for minutiae about the case would be better served by starting with the Paradise Lost films, or the upcoming Peter Jackson-produced doc West Of Memphis, which goes into far greater detail about who may have actually committed the brutal killings than the book does. Life After Death is unconcerned with legal details. Instead, it concentrates on Echols’ state of mind throughout his childhood and his time in prison—the two major segments of his life. He rarely stops to mention milestones in his court battle, which was coordinated by Lorri Davis, the woman he met and married while on death row. Echols maintains his innocence, and casually mentions his deep confidence that he’d someday be released, but mostly uses Life After Death to explore himself and the deplorable prison conditions that nearly did him in.
Echols is a solid storyteller, so when he’s describing his cell, or his fellow inmates—one looks like Iggy Pop and tapes crickets all over his body—Life After Death is compelling reading, a first-person glimpse into the pure hell of death row. He’s convinced that death row, unlike general population, is designed to break inmates’ spirits so they give up on living and appealing. Echols fought back by immersing himself in religion, meditating for hours a day and studying Buddhism, Catholicism, and anything else he can get his hands on. Though raised dirt-poor and from a seriously dysfunctional family, he’s done an admirable job of educating himself.
When Echols reveals too much of what’s rolling around in his head, though, he comes across as egomaniacal and off-putting—the 18-year-old tortured poet comes peeking out through the pen of the hardened inmate. A lengthy passage about ghosts (“They have hidden in trees so that their faces peer out of the bark, and hovered beneath the silver surface of the water… They lurk in the breath of young girls who give us our first kiss”) would fit better in a Twilight book than a death-row memoir. (He also insists on spelling “magic” as “magick,” and he talks about it a lot.)
But the purple prose—and the deep-seated belief in astrology and tarot—don’t sink Life After Death, they just slow it down. Toward its conclusion, the book begins simply reprinting Echols’ journals wholesale, and it’s invigorating to live his surprisingly quick march to freedom with him. After years of the state blocking and rejecting appeals, a new trial seemed inevitable, and rather than attempt it, Arkansas agreed to an Alford plea, which allows defendants to maintain innocence yet admit that evidence could convict them. As quickly as he was rousted from a trailer at 18 and thrown into a nightmare of mental and physical torture, Echols was free, along with his co-defendants. Though not necessarily for newbies—again, see Paradise Lost—Life After Death does a solid job of charting the horrific journey through his weary eyes.