As one of three teenagers wrongly convicted of murder, Damien Echols was sentenced in 1994 to the death penalty, spending 18 years in prison, most of them on Arkansas’s death row, before his release last August in a plea deal that went just short of exoneration. Echols’s prison diaries, first collected and self-published in 2005, form the foundation for his forthcoming memoir, Life After Death, out from Blue Rider Press. Along with his day-to-day, year-to-year experience in a supermaximum prison, Echols’s memoir details the botched investigation that put him behind bars and the forces that gathered around his cause and ultimately freed him, as well as his two friends, who together became known as the West Memphis Three.
“Writing was my escape,” Echols told Show Daily in an e-mail while traveling across the country. “It allowed me to sink inside myself and black out the horror around me. Writing allowed me to articulate the internal landscapes I turned to when the outer world was crushing me to death.”
Echols credits writing with keeping him alive until he won back his freedom, and the support of people who joined his cause provided much-needed hope while he was on the inside: “Random people from all walks of life would send me letters, and I would strike up friendships with them. They reminded me that the world had not forgotten me, and that kept me going.”
Some of those random people were celebrities, in particular, performers such as Marilyn Manson from the heavy metal music scene. It was their love for heavy metal music that initially cast suspicion on the West Memphis Three, as a zealous investigator convinced himself—and a jury—that the murders in question were part of a satanic ritual. Echols says that “in the end, it was all the attention paid to the case which got me out,” and the involvement of celebrities was a major factor in raising awareness: “Having evidence is only 50 percent of the battle. You can have all the evidence in the world saying you’re innocent, but unless the outside world cares and pays attention, the courts will sweep it under the rug and murder you anyway. They do not want to admit they made a mistake.”
Publishing a new, definitive memoir was a difficult but “cathartic” process for Echols, “but in a way that’s hard to articulate. When others read it, it’s almost as if they help me carry the heavy times—and they aren’t quite as heavy anymore.” He hopes that his story gives readers a deeper sense of how the justice system works: “My case is nothing out of the ordinary. There are tens of thousands of innocent people trapped within the system.”
Echols is currently enjoying a measure of celebrity himself, having been invited onstage by Marilyn Manson at the Golden Gods awards (for excellence in heavy metal) to wildly enthusiastic applause. He plans to continue pursuing a full exoneration and to keep writing: “It has always been a huge part of what helps me to cope with the world,” he says. “I started writing at the age of 15 and will most likely never stop.”