Gothic tale of the murder of in­no­cence

Life Af­ter Death: The Shock­ing True Story of an In­no­cent Man on Death Row

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Kenneally

By Damien Echols Text Pub­lish­ing, 432pp, $32.99

IN 1993 in West Mem­phis, Arkansas, three eight-year-old boys were found mur­dered and mu­ti­lated. Damien Echols, a black-clad teenage mis­fit, was ar­rested, with friends Ja­son Bald­win and Jessie Misskel­ley Jr, and all three were con­victed of mur­der­ing the boys, sup­pos­edly as part of a sa­tanic rit­ual.

Echols was sen­tenced to death and his two friends to life im­pris­on­ment. Last year, af­ter 18 years in prison and end­less cam­paigns and ap­peals, the three were re­leased, but not par­doned or ac­quit­ted, a face-sav­ing le­gal de­vice al­low­ing the ac­cused to plead guilty but main­tain their in­no­cence.

Those are the barest facts of a case that sparked the Paradise Lost doc­u­men­tary tril­ogy, the sym­pa­thy and gen­eros­ity of thou­sands of peo­ple (in­clud­ing ac­tor Johnny Depp, mu­si­cian Eddie Ved­der, per­former Henry Rollins and film­maker Peter Jack­son), and of course the usual wel­ter of in­ter­net ac­tiv­ity for and against the three.

Echols’s book, Life Af­ter Death, can’t help but be about the ter­ri­ble crime and the equally ter­ri­ble mis­car­riage of jus­tice that fol­lowed it, but it is re­ally about his life, how it de­scended into hell, and what he found out about him­self there.

His life was neatly, cal­lously bi­sected by his con­vic­tion, and the book, though it cuts back and forth, es­sen­tially fol­lows the same tra­jec­tory. Echols is quite clear that he doesn’t in­tend to re­hash the trial or of­fer a litany of jail­house hor­rors. ‘‘ I grow dis­sat­is­fied when I think of peo­ple read­ing my words out of a mor­bid sense of cu­rios­ity,’’ he says at the out­set, and it is this courtly dig­nity that is at the heart of the book.

His child­hood is a mix­ture of grind­ing poverty, ne­glect, weird re­li­gion, friend­ship and sheer joie de vivre, touch­ing all the deep south bases, from Wil­liam Faulkner’s As I Lay Dy­ing to Johnny Cash’s al­bum Five Feet High and Ris­ing. Rather sur­pris­ingly, af­ter de­scrib­ing fam­ily life in a shack ma­rooned amid end­less fields, iso­lated and ground down, Echols writes: ‘‘ Years later, I read a book by Nick Cave called And the Ass Saw the An­gel. It struck me be­cause of how close he comes to catch­ing the feel of life in that lonely shack.’’

The two have a lot in com­mon, as later on Echols says, while bru­tally dis­sect­ing his sur­round­ings: ‘‘ Ev­ery­one puts on their Sun­day best and pays trib­ute to re­li­gion’s slaugh­ter­house and then dines on a can­ni­bal com­mu­nion.’’

In this first part of the book, as young Damien’s life slides to­wards the abyss, two things stand out. The first is how, de­spite all the south­ern gothic and trailer trash ne­glect, ev­ery­thing is re­ally so or­di­nary. Echols writes in a slightly stilted, gen­tle­manly style, with much of the daggy teenager about it, and life still of­fers nor­mal plea­sures and kind­nesses among friends and fam­ily. Af­ter a while it starts to feel a bit dull, which is prob­a­bly the point.

The sec­ond is the way he al­most un­der­cuts the squalor and mean­ness with his in­nate abil­ity to find beauty, or what he calls ‘‘ mag­ick’’, in al­most any place or sit­u­a­tion.

There is a slightly sick­en­ing, ver­tig­i­nous feel to the first half of the book, as we know what’s com­ing and are con­stantly, if in­ter­mit­tently, re­minded of it. The sec­ond half is more ter­ri­ble, but some­how more sta­ble. There is a new kind of ev­ery­day life to en­dure, a hellish one, and much more mag­ick is re­quired, as well as re­serves of en­durance and hu­man­ity.

There is end­less hor­ror, to be sure, and vi­o­lence — most of it in the form of ar­bi­trary and bru­tal pu­n­ish­ment from the guards — but the most aw­ful things are the most un­ex­pected. The cells are open to out­side pests, so in sum­mer are blan­keted in mos­qui­toes and deaf­en­ing troops of crick­ets, and in win­ter there are rats. The prison au­thor­i­ties give the

Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskel­ley Jr and Ja­son Bald­win fol­low­ing their re­lease af­ter plead­ing guilty to the killings last year

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