cover image Life After Death

Life After Death

Damien Echols. Penguin/Blue Rider, $26.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-399-16020-2

Wrongly convicted at 18 along with two other teenagers and sentenced to death for the 1993 murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., Echols spent nearly two decades in prison before being released in August 2011. In this searing, finely wrought memoir, Echols recalls his poverty-stricken childhood, the trial of the West Memphis 3, and the harsh realities of life on death row. Sent there in 1994, Echols journaled consistently, though many notebooks were destroyed by guards. Echols describes death row as the equivalent of solitary confinement, his only human contact the infrequently allowed visitors from the outside world. Even sunlight and fresh air were denied at Varner Super Max, the facility he was transferred to in 2003. Echols recalls his less than ideal home life, with a mother who cultivated drama and a stepfather he despised (the feeling seems to have been mutual). The most affecting sections are Echols’s philosophical musings on all he has lost, his thoughts often influenced by Zen Buddhism. In one journal entry that survived the guards’ purge, Echols contemplates what he misses the most while in prison. The answer is a heart-wrenching and simple commentary on American prison life: “In the end it’s not the fruit I miss most... I miss being treated like a human being.” (Sept.)