Saturday, 7 September 2013

Life After Death, by Damien Echols

Why I read it: Salon review

Podcasts: Live from the NYPL

Brow: Post-prison memoirs, even if the accused was innocent and has literary ambitions, are never going to rank higher than middle brow, if not lower-middle brow.

Summary: In 1993, Damien Echols, his best friend, and an acquaintance were convicted of killing 3 little boys in what the prosecutors called a Satanic ritual. Echols was 18 and sentenced to death, after a shoddy trial with no evidence and coerced witnesses. The three spent the next 18 years in prison, despite three HBO documentaries investigating the case and demonstrating their innocence, and numerous singers and artists contributing funds to a new defense. They were finally freed in 2011 by entering an Alford plea, in which they are able to maintain their innocence while admitting that the state has enough evidence to convict them.

What I liked about it: 3 minutes of Googling is enough for anyone to conclude that the American justice system is entirely broken, with millions of poor black people locked up for years on plea bargains for non-violent drug offenses so that poor white people can have jobs incarcerating them. I read an article a few months ago about another wrongful murder conviction in which a judge said that he had no interest in re-opening old cases for wrongful conviction, and would only be willing to reconsider convictions if the defendant could demonstrate a procedural error. The West Memphis Three may not have been black, but they certainly were poor, and there certainly were procedural errors in their convictions. This book is a welcome addition to the railroaded by the justice system that just needed a body to convict genre.

What I didn't like about it: This may not be fair on my part, as an educated middle-class person who is not the target of any justice system and who grew up in a country which is hopefully more just than the US, but at several points in the book, Echols comes across as maddeningly passive in the face of his own destiny. For example, he writes that he was stunned throughout most of the trial and wasn't paying much attention. Most of us at least like to think we'd be fighting like mad dogs in that situation, but of course we'll never be in it.

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