Life after Death is a haunting story of survival, injustice, and redemption. Damien Echols and two of his friends were arrested for the murder of three eight-year old boys in 1993, and though they believed they would soon be returned home, that the claims would be proved false and the real murderers caught, it would be eighteen years until any of them would see the outside world again. Painted as the ringleader, Echols would spend the majority of those years on death row. He’d witness countless people come and go as the executions mounted up. He’d spend nearly two decades knowing that there were only two ways that he was getting out of his cell for good; exoneration or execution.
Echols tells his story eloquently, and the reader is left in no doubt that many wouldn’t have survived what he did. Beatings, solitary confinement, the loss of friends, the company of the insane, the dissolving of his family, the constant knowledge that he was being punished for something he didn’t do while the real perpetrators walked free. It’s a wonder that he could even pick up a pen or type on a keyboard, let alone become the intelligent, spiritual, and optimistic individual we meet on these pages.
This memoir, though, is not only about the eighteen years he spent on death row. It’s also about a tough childhood, the brutality of growing up poor, and the limited choices that exist for somebody from his background. The childhood and teenage years shown in the book are as touching and devastating as the years incarcerated. Especially when you consider that this lonely childhood leads to Echols striving for some kind of identity as a teenager, dressing in dark clothing, piercing himself in many places, and collecting skulls of dead animals in his room. And it’s this identity that leads a corrupt cop to choose Echols as the man to pin this disgusting crime on.
Life after Death, though, as the title suggests, is largely a tale of hope. After viewing a documentary about the killings which highlights Echols’s innocence, Lorri Davis contacts him in prison. Not long after, they are married. Davis’s reluctance to give up at first keeps Echols going, and eventually, leads him to believe that he may one day be able to escape his confinement. Davis soon brings celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Marilyn Manson, and Peter Jackson into the fold, and soon, with monetary contributions and emotional support, there is real movement in the case for the first time in years. Echols is very humble in his gratitude to all of these people, and shows no evidence of the feelings of entitlement that somebody in his position would be well within their rights to feel.
Any Cop?: This is a story that should be compulsory reading, particularly for an American public that still supports the death penalty. Okay, so Echols survived, but he can’t have been the only person to ever enter death row without having committed the crime of which they were accused. And as he points out in the memoir, many people he saw executed were not even mentally stable enough to know they were going to be put to death. He tells one story of a man who asked for pie for his last meal, and was so unaware of what was happening to him that, before being led away to his death, he wrapped half the pie in foil to save for later. In four hundred pages Echols embodies all that is wrong with the death penalty. Could the writing have been stronger? Maybe, in parts. Are some details overdone, while other parts that could’ve been more interesting to the reader are swept aside? Yes. Although that appears to be because of the assumption that most people already know much of this story due to its unending coverage in America. Whatever the minor faults with this book, though, Echols’s story is one that needs to be read, studied, and shared.