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Monday, September 17, 2012

Life After Death

I saw the documentary Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hill many years ago (it was released in the mid-90's) and have been fascinated with the West Memphis 3 case for many years.  I have been in turn flabbergasted, angered, and then unsurprised by our justice system's willingness to overlook possible wrongful convictions in the name of saving face.  Damien Echols's Life After Death is one of those whose conviction is in question, and this is his account of his time behind bars and the life that led up to his arrest.

In 1994, 18-year-old Damien and his friends Jessie and Jason were arrested and convicted of the murder of three eight-year-old boys in a supposed sexual, satanic ritual.  Jessie and Jason were sentenced to life in prison while Damien, the supposed ringleader, was sentenced to death.  In this memoir, Damien tells his life story beginning at childhood and ending with his release from prison after agreeing to an Alford plea--pleading guilty while still maintaining innocence and agreeing to not sue the state.  Damien gets into the reasons for agreeing to this plea along with a soul-searching account of religion, family, love, and life in prison. 

I won't go deeply into the evidence (and lack thereof) in the trial since that is well documented online as well as through four documentaries on the case, ending with the most recent West of Memphis.  Damien writes this book with a raw honesty that screams of nothing-left-to-prove.  When I read his thoughts that he put to paper it's clear that he had found a sense of peace in his situation yet yearned for the life he took for granted before the arrest and the conviction.  I appreciate his honesty in his early life--he claims to be no angel but is strait-forward about the how the satanic-cult connection came about, which was the obsession of a local police officer in his small Arkansas town that began many months prior to the Robin Hood Hill murders. 

The unflinching honesty in the peek into death row that I got as a reader made my heart hurt and fascinated me at the same time.  Damien spends time with his audience discussing the intricacies of Death Row and just a quick review of Philip G. Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment is enough to gain understanding into how humans can immediately be conditioned into their roles as aggressors and to understand how vicious and inhumane conditions are in our prison system.  Damien's book gives a human perspective on what psychologists know from past research.  And to be honest, I can't understand how he bared it for 18 years.

This is a book worth reading for sure.  It toggles between Damien's experience of Death Row and the story of how he ended up there.  He is clear and present in his tales of his fellow Death Row inmates, some of whom are completely guilty, some of whom are innocent, some of whom are mentally retarded, and many of whom left and never returned.  It's an expansive book to be sure, but one worth reading and adding to the cannon of literature that gives a resolute personal experience of prison life.

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