“Life After Death”
by Damien Echols
Blue Rider Press, 399 pages, $26.95
By Steve Weinberg
Youngsters like Damien Echols are depressingly common in the United States, lost within perhaps the richest nation that has ever existed. The difference is that even the most neglected and abused youngsters rarely end up convicted of murder as teenagers and sent to Death Row for crimes they never committed.
Also rare is a wrongful conviction book by an alleged perpetrator who is now back in society, released from prison. As knowledge of wrongful convictions becomes increasingly widespread, books about individual cases and about the overall phenomenon arrive, one after the other. (As a journalist who investigates and sometimes writes about wrongful convictions, I own several hundred such books.) Fewer than a dozen of those carry the name of the exonerated individual as author. To be candid, most of the wrongfully convicted lack the tools to read and write well, if at all.
Oops — the previous paragraph uses the term “exonerated individual.” It turns out, according to the state of Arkansas, Echols and his two alleged killing companions are not exonerated. They have been released from prison and everybody “knows” they are innocent of the 1993 brutal triple slayings of eight-year-old boys. But technically, under Arkansas law, Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. are still killers. The case that has come to be known as that of the “West Memphis Three” is complicated, you see, and perhaps the most shameful of the thousands of shameful wrongful convictions across the United States.
Oh, and did I mention that the same Arkansas police, juvenile officers, prosecutors and judges who ought to be banned from their professions for their willful misconduct have never caught the actual killer or killers of those three boys? The incompetent defense lawyers from the trial ought to have lost their licenses. A large percentage of wrongful conviction cases involve those same elements.
Complicating a review of Echols’ book “Life After Death” is deciding how to categorize it.
The book never would have happened, of course, without the accompanying killing saga. But “Life After Death” is not really a wrongful conviction book per se because that saga is not mentioned prominently until page 218. Even after that page, much of the book does not mention the homicide case.
In its later stages, the book is even a celebrity chronicle, as famous individuals adopt the cause of the West Memphis Three and stay the course. The celebrities include musician Eddie Vedder and actor Johnny Depp. Their financial contributions to Echols’ appellate defense fund and their concern deserve praise, even from readers who do not care for the artistry of Vedder and Depp. “Life After Death” is a grim, grim book. That is not a criticism, but a fact. Reader, beware of pervasive depression while absorbed.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative reporter based in Columbia, Mo.
By Steve Weinberg, AJC Arts and Culture blog