Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Books in 2013: #22 Life After Death by Damien Echols

In 1996, my university buddy and I went to the Bloor Cinema to see a documentary called Paradise Lost. We knew absolutely nothing about the film going in, but this was our Masters year of university, and when we weren't sitting in the library, we were sitting in the Bloor Cinema in Toronto. Two hours later, we came out of that theatre, changed forever.

Paradise Lost is a documentary about the murder of three young boys in West Memphis in 1993 — Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers. (Warning for anyone watching the movie: they show video of the corpses the way the police found them, and that image is forever seared onto my brain.) The police were under a LOT of pressure to put away the killers, and so they immediately pinned it on three teenagers who were known to listen to heavy metal music and wear Goth clothing (they HAD to be the perpetrators, right?) Jessie Misskelley Jr. was the outsider of the three, a young man with a very low IQ who the cops took into a separate room, grilling him for hours and hours with no food or water until he was so confused and upset he confessed to everything and agreed that the other two young men — Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin — had been involved. It didn't matter that he barely knew them, or that Echols and Baldwin weren't even in the vicinity at the time, or that witnesses had never seen them in the area, or that other people had stepped forward to mention who they HAD seen in the area. Damien Echols was the kid in long black hair, trenchcoat, Doc Martens, and pentangle etched onto the back of his hand who listened to The Cure and Metallica. (In other words, fitting the description of most of the guys I hung around with in high school.) Jason Baldwin had the mullet and Metallica shirt, and was Echols' best friend. The trial was swift, and the boys were convicted: Baldwin and Misskelley were given life in prison, and Echols was sentenced to death.

And then the documentary came out, and outrage was immediate. It showed the trial, and the ineptitude of the police force. After I saw it, I became obsessed with the case of the West Memphis Three, as they were now known. I came home late that night from the film and went onto the website, reading everything I could about what had happened since the events of the film had taken place and there was SO much more to the story already. I was eager to know more about Damien Echols, the most charismatic of the bunch, who had been given the death penalty. Within days I contacted their supporters through the website, and they wrote me back. I donated money to the fund to have the case reopened. I bought a shirt that said "Free the West Memphis Three" and wore it all the time, constantly telling people about the case and how they could help. I didn't, for a second, believe these young men had done it. Three little boys died that day, molested, mutilated, and brutally murdered, and their killer was walking free while these three young men were sitting in jail.

The second documentary was released, wherein the documentary filmmakers shone a spotlight on the stepfather of Christopher Byers, making him look like a lunatic and a possible suspect. Byers, who had been an outspoken advocate for the conviction of the West Memphis Three (in the first movie, he's batshit insane, and in the second he's worse) suddenly realized what it felt like to be wrongly accused, and by the third movie he'd changed his tune and was advocating for the release of the men. Only near the end of that one did they suddenly suggest perhaps it was the stepfather of another of the boys who had done it, and to this day he looks like the most likely, but of course the case can't be reopened.

Here's the catch: in the state of Arkansas, they have never, EVER overturned a conviction on the basis that they were wrong. Ever. So, after so much public outcry and the obvious wrongfulness of the conviction, the state of Arkansas approached the West Memphis Three and gave them an out: if you admit that you were guilty and did it, we can put on paper that you admitted to the crime, and we'll let you go.

It was over 18 years after these men had been put in prison. Their late teens, entirety of their twenties, and majority of their thirties had been spent in prison. Jason Baldwin was studying to be a lawyer, and was hoping to have the charge overturned, which would allow him to actually practice so he was reluctant to do this. Jessie Misskelley was basically willing to go with whatever the other two did. And Damien Echols, the poet, the philosopher, the most famous of the bunch, watched his execution date loom and begged Jason to change his mind. Jason did, they admitted to it, and Damien, who had been in a closed cell for over a decade, never being allowed outside, saw the sun for the first time in 10 years.

But they'll never truly be free. Their best years were taken from them. Celebrities who had taken on the case like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder and the members of Metallica and Marilyn Manson were now buddies with Echols, but it was going to take a long time for him to find any sort of peace. (A woman who saw the 1996 documentary began writing to him in prison, and they were married three years later; she eventually became the main supporter of the three men, and it's mostly due to her efforts that they were freed.) Jason is hoping to do pro bono legal work for the wrongfully accused, but because of his conviction and official admission of guilt it likely won't happen. And Jessie Misskelley is holed up in a house with no phone and has no contact with the outside world. They destroyed him. In a way, they destroyed all of them.

And those three little boys, who would now be in their early twenties, are still dead. And their killer walks free.

I've read a book on the case (called Devil's Knot), and every article I could get my hands on. And finally, Damien Echols wrote his own memoir on it, which brings us (FINALLY) to the 22nd book I've read this year, the aptly titled, Life After Death. This book is Damien's account of his very troubled upbringing, the abject poverty he and his family encountered, his struggles to find normalcy in a distant family that showed him very little love and affection, and how he was pinpointed as the fall-guy for this horrible crime. The section of the book covering his time in prison is often written in the present tense because they're taken from his actual diaries kept while in there, so they are raw, angry, and truly painful to read. There are times when the writing is a little laboured (where as an editor I could see where his publisher had asked him to create a segue that wasn't originally there), but his passion comes through, and the book is formatted beautifully, in a non-linear style that jumps back and forth between his time in prison, and looking back on the years that led up to his incarceration. Every once in a while he writes something that is so pure, so beautiful, it cuts right to the core. Such as when he talks about the difference between the first place he was incarcerated and the second: "Jail is preschool. Prison is for those earning a Ph.D. in brutality."

Or this devastating answer to the oft-asked question when he was still locked up, "What do you miss the most?"

...a hundred things flash through my mind—the memories giving me that free-fall feeling in the pit of my stomach. I miss the rain. I miss standing beneath the sky and looking up at the moon and stars. I miss the wind. I miss cats and dogs. I miss wearing real clothes, having a real toothbrush, using a real pen, drinking iced tea, eating ice cream, and going for walks.
            I’m tempted to say the thing I miss most is fruit. I haven’t had a piece of fresh fruit in about eight years, and before that I only got it once a year. The prison used to give everyone two apples and two oranges on Christmas, but then they stopped, said it was a “threat to security,” along with tea bags and dental floss. So I haven’t had any in nearly a decade now. They prevent scurvy by giving everyone a cup of watered-down orange juice for breakfast. It doesn’t have much taste, but enough vitamin C to keep your teeth from falling out.
            In the end, it’s not the fruit I miss most, though if you rolled all the deprivations into one thing, it would be this: I miss being treated like a human being.

This is an incredible account of one man who has been so wronged, but who never gave up on those who never gave up on him, and his struggle to maintain his sanity and hope for almost 20 years. It's uplifting and forces the reader to stop taking their lives for granted, to look around and be happy that they have what they have. Very highly recommended. (I also highly recommend the Paradise Lost trilogy, and the Amy Berg film that was done with Echols' cooperation after he was let out of prison, West of Memphis.)


Starbright said...

I too scoured the internet for info on the case, saw the documentaries, read all the books and rejoiced with a great number of people when the injustice was partially righted. "Partially" righted because they had to take an Alford Please to gain their freedom. Police investigation and justice system at its lowest.

Bridget said...

I too saw the documentaries years ago and was mesmerized by the story. The injustice is overwhelming, but at least now they are free from the physical prison. Damien moved to my city, Salem, MA and has found a home here. I have spoken with him a few times and it was wonderful. He is kind, friendly, and gentle. It makes me so happy that he has found some peace.

Ashley said...

Hi! I've never posted here, so I'm not sure if there is protocol involved or mandatory introductions. I used to keep up with your entries on Lost way back when. In fact, I remembered the blog because my roommate and I started re-watching the show. In any case, this particular entry reminded me of Rectify. It's a Sundance Channel original series which deals with the impact of wrongful convictions and the challenges that come along with attempting to adjust to life outside of prison. I had to recommend it in case you had not heard of it. It is incredibly touching and tries to be sensitive to the experiences of these individuals. It's quite short as well, only 6 episodes so far (according to Netflix). I haven't seen it all, but I can vouch for the first half.

Nikki Stafford said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Ashley!! I'll definitely have to check it out. :)