Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis 3 who spent 18 years on death row before his release in 2011, will be in Austin on October 27 and 28, 2012 for the Texas Book Festival, where he will present his new memoir “Life After Death”.
Damien Echols, the central figure in one of the most notorious cases of wrongful conviction in recent memory, presents a gripping, eloquently written account of his early life, his arrest and trial, his eighteen years on death row, his new life after prison, and his ongoing quest for full exoneration in his definitive memoir, LIFE AFTER DEATH (Blue Rider Press; September 18, 2012; ISBN: 978-0-399-16020-2; Price: $26.95).
Along with fellow teenagers Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Echols was arrested and charged in 1993 with the murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. As the supposed “ringleader” of the group, Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley were given life sentences. The convicted men, known as the West Memphis Three, became the subject of a three-part HBO documentary, Paradise Lost, which exposed the false testimony, legal incompetence, and public hysteria that characterized their trial. The documentary also brought their case to the attention of a worldwide audience and won them support from celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, Margaret Cho, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines and Marilyn Manson, as well as thousands of ordinary people.
Stunningly, after years of fruitless attempts to overturn their convictions, the WM3 were released from prison in August 2011. A new documentary about them produced by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who are both longtime supporters of the WM3, West of Memphis, was acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled for wide release in December 2012. In addition, Johnny Depp’s production company has optioned the film rights to Echols’s memoir.
In LIFE AFTER DEATH, Damien Echols tells for the first time the complete, inside story of his life before and after the trial, including his difficult childhood, his spiritual and intellectual journey in prison, and his wife, Lorri Davis, whom he met and married while on death row. Combining much new writing with unpublished passages from his prison journals, as well as excerpts from his brief self-published memoir, Echols reveals himself to be not only an emblematic and charismatic public figure, but also an extraordinary writer.
Like Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle, he describes with heartrending precision and disarming humor an often-painful Southern upbringing by dysfunctional parents in trailer parks and unheated shacks. During his disaffected teenage years, he wore the goth look of black clothing, earrings, and shaved head that made him the perfect target for police investigators convinced that satanic rituals had played a role in the murders. He recalls the tumultuous emotions that shook him during his interrogation, arrest, and trial, along with his overwhelming sense of disbelief that he had been convicted of a crime he knew nothing about in a trial marked by gross inconsistencies, police and prosecutorial misconduct, and utterly inadequate legal representation.
At the heart of Echols’s memoir is his vivid and appalling chronicle of his nearly two decades on death row – an experience of almost unimaginable physical and psychological abuse, fear, and isolation. “I will be your master of ceremonies,” he writes, “on a guided tour of this small corner of hell. Prepare to be dazzled and baffled. If the hand is truly quicker than the eye you’ll never know what hit you. I know I didn’t.”
For much of his in time in prison, Echols was assigned to a “super max” penitentiary, alone for twenty-three hours a day in a concrete cell so small he could take no more than two steps, and from which he could see only a few inches of sky. He tells of being beaten and locked in solitary confinement without cause; of having his few possessions, and especially his writings and artwork, seized or destroyed without warning; of getting so accustomed to having his hands and feet shackled that he could no longer walk normally, or climb stairs. “The prison staff does not look at you as human,” he writes, “and they go out of their way to let you know it. The message that you are inferior and worthless is hammered in at every conceivable turn.”
Echols memorably portrays his fellow death row inmates, most of them men of limited intelligence and desperate backgrounds, seething with greed, anger, frustration, lust, hatred, and jealousy. Most have no families or families who long ago stopped visiting them. They become so lonely that they make beloved pets out of rats, mice, snakes, and even crickets. The law says that mentally retarded or insane people are not supposed to be executed, but Echols repeatedly saw that law cynically manipulated and violated.
In most cases, death row inmates have indeed committed terrible crimes, but their crimes are no worse than those of many others who receive prison sentences, and at least some measure of rehabilitation. On death row, there is no attempt at rehabilitation. “Why bother?” is the prevailing attitude about these human beings already consigned to oblivion. In Echols’s view, “Most of the people on death row are here for no other reason than that their case got more publicity than others. The difference between a man receiving a prison sentence and a man receiving a death sentence could be decided by nothing more than a slow news day.”
Yet Echols’s memoir is as inspiring as it is terrifying, revealing how he managed to keep himself both sane and alive in a world shaped by sadness, horror, and sheer absurdity. Readingwas a refuge, and Echols consumed thousands of books until his eyesight began to fail under the perpetual stress of prison toward the end of his incarceration. Another deep source of strength was his spirituality, which is uniquely his own but has been fed by his involvement with Catholicism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and other spiritual paths. A few remarkable chaplains were nothing less than lifelines to him and his fellow prisoners. But above all, it was the support that Echols received from his wife, who led the efforts to have his conviction overturned and get him released, that sustained him and literally saved his life, he says. Echols’s account of how they kept their relationship vital and evolving through years of being deprived of nearly all the usual means of expressing love is both moving and miraculous.
The journal writing and artwork that Echols did in prison helped him to process his experiences and place them in some kind of comprehensible context. They also revealed his artistic ambitions, which are clearly evident in his new memoir, for it is far more than simply a work of testimony, sensation, or even salvation.
“If I start to believe that the things I wrote cannot stand on their own merit, then I will lay down my pen,” Echols writes. “I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will only think of me as either someone on death row or someone who used to be on death row. I grow dissatisfied when I think of people reading my words out of a morbid sense of curiosity. I want people to read what I write because it means something to them – either it makes them laugh, or remember things they’ve forgotten and that once meant something to them, or that it simply touches them in some way. I don’t want to be an oddity, a freak, or a curiosity. I don’t want to be the car wreck that people slow down to gawk at. . . . I want to create something of lasting beauty, not a freak show exhibit.”
Publishing a year after the WM3’s release from prison, and in conjunction with the release of a major new film about them, LIFE AFTER DEATH is a spellbinding and eye-opening read from a prodigiously talented writer, sure to become a classic of prison literature.
About the Author:
Damien Echols was born in 1974 and grew up in Mississippi, Tennessee, Maryland, Oregon, and Arkansas. At age eighteen he was falsely convicted, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – afterward known as the West Memphis Three – in the case known as the Robin Hood Hill murders. Echols received the death sentence and spent eighteen years on death row. In 2011, all three were released in an agreement with the state of Arkansas known as an Alford plea. The West Memphis Three have been the subject of Paradise Lost, a three-part documentary series produced by HBO, and West of Memphis, a documentary produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. Echols is also the author of a self-published memoir entitled Almost Home. An exhibition of artwork he completed in prison will take place at theMuseum ofModern Art inNew York in the fall of 2012. Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, live inNew York City.