Life After Death
If I start to believe that the things I write cannot stand on their own merit, then I will lay down my pen. I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will think of me only 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 it makes them remember things they’ve forgotten and that once meant something to them, or 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.
If someone begins reading because they want to see life from a perspective different from their own, then I would be content. If someone reads because they want to know what life looks like from where I stand, then I will be happy.
In 1996 my husband and I caught a documentary late one night. Titled Paradise Lost: the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, it told the story of three teenagers convicted of brutal murders two years prior. Evidence in the case was sketchy at best; the chief reason they came under suspicion was their liking for dressing in black. On this basis, a death sentence was given to Damien Echols, and life sentences were given to Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. Identification with the convicted was easy for us. Our wardrobes consisted mainly of black clothing, and I can’t recall how many times I’ve heard that repulsed tone: “What are you, some kind of devil worshiper?”
I had been out of high school for six years at that point, but Paradise Lost brought back many memories. Enraged by what we had seen, we talked about it to our friends and encouraged them to see it. My mother watched it and afterward was very quiet. All she could say was, “That could have happened to any one of you.”
We were not alone in our interest. Another documentary was made; a website appeared; more people began talking about the case. When we could (which was not often), we would donate money to the organization formed to exonerate them. Part of my brain was sure that authorities would release them all in a dramatic moment out of a Perry Mason or Law & Order episode. The other part knows that innocent persons have spent their lives in prison and that some have been executed.
A decade after seeing the first documentary, I read Damien Echols’s first memoir Almost Home. It was difficult to read—not due to subject matter or writing style, but knowing that the author had spent his adult life on death row while innocent. Life after Death, by contrast, was nearly cathartic. Some of the story covered is similar to Almost Home, although Life after Death is more detailed. Almost Home gave the basics of the case and Echols’s life up until his arrest, but there were many things he could not say. In Life after Death, he does not have to worry about retaliation from pissed off prison guards any longer.
Despite the lack of writing workshops on death row, Echols’s style flows and is easy to read, though not simplistic. He’s blisteringly angry (with reason) when discussing his prosecution and imprisonment, contrasted with his tender tone when talking about his wife, Lorri Davis. His absolute devotion to the woman who gave up her life in one state to marry him on death row is touching and completely understandable—she was the driving force behind the movement to free the trio. He’s humorous about the absurd aspects of the prison system, including but not limited to visiting ministers trying to convince inmates to let the state execute them. He also gives interesting details on the resourcefulness of prisoners. Though I’ve noticed how hot light bulbs can get, I’ve never imagined it’s possible to cook over them.
Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are free men today, thanks to an unusual legal maneuver called an Alford plea. This put them in the odd position of maintaining innocence while technically pleading guilty and being sentenced to time served. Echols provides full detail on their reasons for accepting this curious plea.
If you never wore black or were called a freak, you may wonder how interesting this story will be to you. It bears mentioning that the case of the West Memphis Three was the tail end of what is frequently referred to as Satanic Panic or Satanic Ritual Abuse, which involved law enforcement and other authorities suspecting large groups of Satanists everywhere and an impossibly large conspiracy allowing them to abuse and murder children. Most of the accusations revolved around day cares, with none of the supposed perpetrators wearing black or listening to death rock or heavy metal. If you think that this bizarre phenomenon saw its end in the early 1990s, it bears knowing that the prosecutor in the case of Amanda Knox originally tried to claim she murdered her housemate in a satanic rite, despite her bearing no resemblance to a goth rocker. However, he backed off on that, and it’s the 21st century; surely no one is judged so much on looks now. All kinds are accepted these days, right? I could try to believe that, and then I think of Sophie Lancaster.
When it comes to a witch hunt like this, a mainstream appearance may not protect you. Three little boys were murdered, and law enforcement zeroed in on convenient suspects. Read Echols’s memoir—whether you wear black or not, this could happen to anyone.
Buy It: No one can arrest you for reading this book, even if you wear a black t-shirt while you do it.
Life After Death
Blue Rider Press
$26.95 (Hardcover), 416 pages