I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if it hadn’t been recommended. The subject matter was off-putting and the book wasn’t particularly well structured. But a need to be informed about this story was hard to ignore.
This is beyond just the true story of a man who was incarcerated for more than 18 years – placed on death row solitary confinement for nine of them – for murders he clearly didn’t commit. This is certainly not the first example of such a miscarriage of justice and will unlikely be the last. But this story proves a sinister fracture still exists in our system.
This includes being oblivious to an unacceptable unfairness. This type of dreadful situation can, and still does, happen in this day and age – and derives from official policy made by elected lawmakers.
Damien Echols was born in 1974 into modern day American poverty. Growing up in Arkansas, for most of his childhood he lived in a dilapidated shack, worse than a trailer home – such places at least had electricity and hot water. His mother had given up, his father had left long ago, and his step father was a crazy mix of derelict Baptist zealot.
In 1993 when the notorious murders of three young boys elicited public blameful fervour and fear, bible-belt hysteria created a witch-hunt targeting Satanism as the culprit. The corrupt, spiteful and lazy police judicial system, which lacked any core awareness of justice and empathy, used this assertion as evidence to blame three poor teenagers who had no idea of their rights and whom society was likely to wash their hands of.
Put into this mad gauntlet Damien and his two friends, who came to be known as the West Memphis Three, quickly found themselves convicted and sentenced for the murders. Because he wore black clothes, Damien Echols was considered the ringleader and sentenced to death. No one seemed to care about the lack of or tainted evidence.
His experiences in a hell hole prison system make up most of the story. He explains the lethal hypocrisies, the blatant abuses, the morbid reality of how humanity is systematically destroyed and perverted in such a place, and identifies the thugs who thrive in this tax-funded underworld.
It is outrageously grim reading, his accounts of more than 18 years stolen from him in this dreadful existence.
How can someone live in a fluorescent-lit concrete cell for this long, where they have no access to the outdoors, can only walk two steps in each direction and are at the mercy of a system geared up to break them?
Perhaps what is more notable about this story is how support for the Three grew, following a documentary crew’s inadvertent discovery of the true extent of the injustice. Star personalities including Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson used their publicity and finances to bring substantial attention to the plight of the Three and back their case for freedom. This started a viral campaign picked up by a range of musicians who promoted the cause to fans and the public – showing that the power of celebrity has real clout when it counts.
As this support grew, the Arkansas state government realised it was fast getting the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Damien explains that he was little aware of this momentum building because he was shut off from the outside world. The only clue he had was the increase in beatings he received from the prison guards – indicating media attention was growing.
Damien incisively depicts the often clichéd types of people he encountered. Police and prison guard psychopaths, hypocritical prison chaplains, the incompetent defence attorneys who would try to sell out the Three’s unity, the hysterical and unwitting public herd mentality, the coerced witnesses, the severe mental impairment of those on death row and the few there who were also innocent but executed.
But he also explains the great boost he got from his supporters, how people stuck by him simply because they were deeply concerned about his plight. What also stands out is that Damien’s wife (who met him while he was imprisoned) conducted his case and took on the judicial system with next to no experience and limited finances. Despite his experience he amazingly says that it was worth it to meet her. What’s more, he has resiliently said in interviews throughout the last two decades that he wouldn’t change anything about who he is.
Early in the book he articulates how his difficult early life ate away at his spirit. Did this put him in better stead for his long term spent in prison? The spiritual, mental and physical disciplines which he developed could only do so much – he knew he would die in that place if he had to spend much longer there.
In August 2011 the Three’s incarceration ended with what is known as the Alford Plea – a little-used agreement which effectively grants release without the prosecution admitting it was wrong. So no acquittal, annulment of conviction or compensation – it simply freed them from prison.
Damien explains that his last week before release was one of the hardest times in prison as the plea was stymied by the lawyer of one of the Three who angled for a better, singular deal for their client. At this point the Three knew their innocence would win out – but it could take years to happen. There were certainly grounds for a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the government but Damian said he was genuinely scared of being murdered to stop the action getting to court.
Signing the plea, the Three were released within days. Since that time Damien has moved to Massachusetts and continues to speak on his experience.
Given he has only been out of prison for less than two years, he is still reacclimatising and suffers from physical ailments caused by prolonged incarceration. Today, his daily Twitter feeds are full of supportive lines of wisdom about being better than you know and that difficultly will be matched with greatness. This is probably not surprising. Similar statements have undoubtedly been expressed many times before by people who have survived great adversity.
But the magnitude of his experience makes these comments resonate particularly strongly. It will be interesting to see what happens in his life over the next few years. In the meantime what justice has come to those who perpetrated this outrage? What’s more, the real killer of the boys has not been caught, at least not for these crimes.
People were more willing to blame without evidence than motivated to find the real killer. It also took nearly two decades for three men to be released from prison for a crime they didn’t commit. Those once so vocal about exacting revenge have disappeared into the woodwork. Do any of these people feel responsible for the awful juggernaut which they had a hand in?
This true story is a terrible indictment on a society, the power of ignorance and apathy, and even more so on a State which upholds the death penalty. It’s also a pertinent lesson for those in power positions to be very careful, responsible, respectful and mindful of making things fair and right.
It’s also frightening to realise that similar injustices are inevitably happening right now.