Book review: Life After Death – Damien Echols (memoir, ****)

Frequently harrowing and occasionally beautiful, Life After Death is a thoughtful (if raw) account of not just Damien’s Echols’ life behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, but also the circumstances (poverty, prejudice) that led him there.

What’s incredible about Echols’ story is how well he’s able to tell it. This is no ghost-written, cash-in-quick memoir. It’s clear that Echols is a writer who has worked hard on his craft, and his descriptions of life before and after his conviction are visceral and moving.

Based on a vague knowledge of the West Memphis Three case, it’s easy to assume that Echols’ arrest was a case of simple bad luck. However, Echols painstakingly retraces the months and years of his life beforehand to show how small and not-so-small moments snowballed together to lead him down the path of wrongful conviction.

As an account of what life is like on Death Row, the book is interesting and sometimes darkly funny. As an account of growing up poor, it’s uncomfortable and extremely sad. As an indictment of the US justice system, it’s damning.

Life After Death is not without its flaws. There’s a fragmentary, often jarring, quality to the writing, reflecting the fact that this is an edited-down version of the many millions of words that Echols wrote during his time in prison. And occasionally Echols’ anger at the system tips over into paranoia. (It’s hard to believe that every prison guard is a sadistic son of a bitch and that every prison rule is a conspiracy to rob the inmates of their dignity.)

However, if you have the slightest interest in the West Memphis Three case (and even if you don’t), this is a worthwhile book and one that will stay with you for a long time.