Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: Life After Death by Damien Echols

The West Memphis Three case, which attracted much public attention due to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's HBO series Paradise Lost, Revelations, and Purgatory, resulted in an Alford plea in 2011. The aftermath of the case, and many details previously unrevealed, were told in the recently released West of Memphis. And now, there is an opportunity to get the personal perspective of the major protagonist in this riveting epic miscarriage of justice: Damien Echols, author of Life After Death.

The book offers very little information on the trial itself, which has been extensively covered elsewhere. Instead, Echols offers a rich account of his family background and personal history. Born to an unstable home, frequently on the road, and labeled a troublemaker, Echols befriended to-be codefendant Jason Baldwin. Some context for his arrest is provided by his interactions with overzealous police officers obsessed with Satanism and eager to label and stigmatize misfits they associated with occult practices. And, we hear a bit more about the birth of his son during the course of the trial.

The book's chronology leaps back and forth between memories of these events and current writings of prison experience, deliberately undated because of the harmful psychological effect the passage of time had on Echols on Death Row. But we do get descriptions of the other inmates, many of which are incredibly disconcerting. We have rules against executing the mentally defective, Echols says, but segregation and Death Row are not only a home, but a catalyst for mental disorders and defects.

These stories ring authentic, but they are not unnecessarily sensationalized; Echols' focus is directed inward, into his personal growth and enrichment experience behind bars. In an effort to avoid going mad or stifled, he turns his cell, as some inmates advise him, into "a school and a monastery", becoming a voracious reader and immersing himself in spiritual practices, primarily Catholicism and Zen Buddhism. This inner journey is the focus for much of the book, as it drives not only the memories of the past, but also a way to handle and manage the expectations and hopes for the future. It is particularly poignant to read of this inner journey on a week in which we are holding an event to reignite the struggle against solitary confinement in CA, in which we expect to host people who have spent time in the SHU, as well as a life-size model of a SHU cell.

The book does offer a suspenful, blow-by-blow account of the events leading to the Alford plea, and some of Echols' experiences post-exoneration, which will be of interest to those who have followed the case. And much of the book is a love letter to Echols' devoted wife Lorri, as well as a recognition of friendship and gratitude to the many people on the outside who worked tirelessly for his exoneration. Those of you who have seen the movies and read about the case will find Life After Death a reflective companion to the facts and procedures, and appreciate the unique window into Echols' inner life.

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