In 2017 Jason and I watched a lot of crime/court related stories. Some such as The People vs OJ Simpson and Manhunt: Unabomber I was familiar with having been a child in the 90s. I didn’t know the stories in full detail though and found the shows intriguing.
The story that stood out the most though was one that I had never heard of. I’m not sure if it wasn’t covered much in my area during the 90s or because I was so young (born in 1986) that I just wasn’t paying attention to the coverage to remember it. Jason and I came across the HBO documentary trilogy, Paradise Lost, while browsing Amazon Prime one day. It is the story of the West Memphis 3 – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. Three teens charged with and convicted of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.
After watching the trilogy I was horrified by just how corrupt the legal system could be. Everyone has heard of “dirty cops” but this went far beyond that. It was true injustice at every juncture of the legal system. Not only were people not doing their jobs correctly, but it seemed they were intent on convicting three innocent teens of murder for no other reason but to quickly close a case and look like heroes in their town. I believe it’s the closest thing this country has had to a modern day witch hunt.
Damien was pegged as the “ring leader” and sentenced to death row. I have never determined my opinion on the death penalty. I think part of the reason is that I have never done enough research into the justice system or societal benefits/downfalls of it to have an accurate picture. Another reason is I feel so far removed from hard crime and prisons (fortunately) that having no personal experience leaves me further limited in my true understanding of it.
For Christmas Jason bought me Damien’s book, Life After Death. It was written in 2012 after he had been released in 2011. I primarily read fiction and if I do read non-fiction it tends to be self-help or financial related books. This was the first I ever read a memoir.
I can certainly see why it was ranked as a NY Times Bestseller. Damien’s writing style is transfixing and encompassing. It’s not a “woe is me” story, but rather a journey through his poverty-stricken childhood to his being targeted by the local cops to the true mental trials of being on death row. It is beautifully written in a near horrifying way and even has elements of sarcasm, wit and humor sprinkled throughout it.
To be taken inside the mind of someone who spent half of his life alone in a cell for a crime he didn’t commit is eye opening to say the least. Many times while reading I paused and reflected on some of the seemingly small things such as the way Damien described what it was like to not feel snow in 18 years. So many details of life that most of us taken for granted that he could only wish to experience again. At times the book made my heart hurt. Other times it frustrated and made me angry to know that there are humans who exist who could be so cold and malicious to another human being.
Like Damien I cannot say what needs to be done to fix the justice system. There are certainly dangerous people in this world and those who are guilty of horrendous crimes. I just now know that for those who are innocent, death row sounds like the truest Hell on Earth.
I finished reading Life After Death last night and I am still wrapping my head around all of it. It’s impossible to comprehend the psychological torment Damien experienced and how he ever found the will to keep pushing through each day. His book will be one that I will certainly reread again, for the magick in the writing and the lessons to be learned from just attempting to understand a world and experiences so vastly different from my own.