I’ve finally read Damien Echols’ Life After Death. I’ve seen exactly none of the documentaries about the West Memphis Three (yet), though I’ve poured over wm3.org and followed the case in the later years of Echols’ (and Baldwin’s, and Misskelley’s) incarceration with interest and empathy.
I’ve considered what it must be like to suffer though you’ve done nothing wrong, and to have few people believe you.
So I read the 400-page memoir over two days last week and then, with no time to sit and reflect, closed the book and jumped up to make the farmer’s market before it closed.
I did not expect to find chanterelle mushrooms. I bought them.
This past weekend, I fried them up and ate them and Echols’ words flashed back into my brain as I chewed. If he likes food as much as I do, he’d have called this find “magickal,” because they are potential and pleasure for me, the way snow and sunsets are for him—even the memories of them, from within a tiny cemented solitude. I thought about the simple acts of lying in bed and reading a book I chose and was able to buy, then standing up, getting in my car, and driving to the farmer’s market, filling a canvas bag with hyper-fresh vegetables, paying for them, and returning home to eat them.
Maybe the mushrooms are a too-trite metaphor. Still, near the end of Echols’ memoir, which is all-around compelling and well-written, he talks about the direness of his situation on Death Row, after 18 years behind bars. It isn’t just that his execution date had been set. It isn’t just the violence of prison, where guards and criminals (and, ahem, innocents) clash and everyone watches his own back with exhausting vigilance. It’s that there are no vegetables, no real exercise, no healthcare. Minor infections or nutrient deficiencies can become grave illnesses overnight, though they won’t be treated as such. Echols’ writes of a watered down glass of OJ at prison breakfast, just enough to ward off scurvy; oh, and the fresh fruit each prisoner used to get at Christmas-time? Not anymore. “I’m tempted to say I miss fruit the most,” he writes about that question he is most often asked by outsiders who send him letters. “If you don’t work very hard and aren’t very, very careful, you’ll die in here,” he says in the voice of one who still remembers how to live, just yards from the death house. Still remembers what fruit tastes like.
Much of Damien’s memoir is about his passionate exploration of various spiritual practices. To say that it was moving to bear witness to such a strong will—to someone who insists on bettering himself and seeing purpose and beauty even from a cage—would be a criminal understatement.
I was 12 when Damien, Jason, and Jessie were arrested in June 1993. I didn’t hear much about the case until the late ‘90s. I don’t mind admitting that my interest piqued when Eddie Vedder started speaking out about it. New developments in the case seemed agonizingly slow to come to light for the public, and reading Echols’ account now, I can see it was so for all involved parties. Vedder, Henry Rollins, Natalie Maines, Johnny Depp–these celebrities, working with Echols’ wife, kept the urgency of the story visible.
Then, on August 19, 2011, the three were suddenly free after an appeal denial sent their case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, who granted Echols a new evidentiary trial with no jury, just a judge. Having entered what’s called an Alford plea—meaning that despite maintaining their innocence, they acknowledged the state of Arkansas had enough evidence to convict them of the crimes (the New York Times called it “an unusual technicality whereby the defendants were released but not vindicated”)—the three were released. All those lost years and then…just like that.
Imagine having to sign that piece of paper. “You can kill me, I know, even though I’m telling you still that I did not do this…”
I remember watching all this news break, the quick and shell-shocked interviews. I remember Jason Baldwin’s exact words: “This is not justice…I didn’t want to take the deal to begin with…but they’re trying to kill Damien.” (Echols was on Death Row, and the lawyers for Baldwin and Misskelley were so convinced that Damien would be sentenced to death as the murdering mastermind that they fought for and won separation of their clients’ cases from Echols’ case. Jason and Jessie were sentenced to life and then some, but only Damien was going to be executed.) I remember because I wrote a longer entry in my journal about it, thrilled at the thought of three stereotyped and persecuted teenagers, who’d had difficult enough childhoods to begin with, finally being treated like human beings. I remember going to the festival for Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary only a few weeks later, and Vedder’s exuberance about these men being at last freed: “Thanks for trusting us on that,” he said to the crowd at PJ20, whose cheers reached a deafening pitch when he spoke about this happy ending to his years of advocacy for the men, especially Damien. “And if you didn’t trust us on that, fuck you! You should have known better!” I wrote that in my journal, too.
Such a simple thing, walking out of one’s home to buy dinner at the farmer’s market. A slightly more complicated thing it is to consider both the spiritual and political implications of buying local and organic, of connecting to earth/nature cycles by eating seasonally available produce, of trying to contribute to good in the world by making more conscientious choices. And what about our choices in reading material, in music to listen to, in causes we wish to take up?
By now it probably goes without saying that we take so much for granted. We shouldn’t.
Here’s hoping that wherever Damien is (and Jason and Jessie), his dinner plate is full of color and taste and choice tonight. That after his meal, he picks up a good book. That he finds some magic. I was moved by his plight as a teenager, and I’m moved again, times ten, by his resilience and strength as an adult. This isn’t exactly a book review, but it feels right to close with a recommendation: read Life After Death. Vedder’s blurb says, “Damien teaches us how to live.”