“I believe it was Henry Rollins, also a longtime supporter and friend of Damien’s, who said it, and it’s absolutely true: it could have been any of us,” [Johnny] Depp said of the circumstances surrounding the West Memphis Three’s wrongful imprisonment. “Because, what, you look different? [The authorities] put their eyeball on Damien and didn’t take it off, even though everything around them — they didn’t look at the insane amount of holes in the case. They just looked at the guy with the black T-shirt and the long black hair. It was a witch hunt.”
If you aren’t familiar with Damien Echols, if you aren’t familiar with the West Memphis Three, if you aren’t familiar with gross legal injustice, perhaps you should read this book. Life After Death is Damien Echols’ new memoir about his time spent in the Arkansas prison system, outlining his stay on death row.
Controversy and public outcry has kept these convicted murderers in the news. There was a three part documentary, Paradise Lost: the Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. These documentaries worked to inform the public of the horrendous injustice that three boys from West Memphis, AR were given. As exampled earlier, celebrities rallied to the cause. Even Metallica allowed their music to be used in the film, the first time any of their songs have appeared in a movie. What was displayed was incompetence on the part of the police, and the legal system in general. What Henry Rollins is saying via Johnny Depp is these poor young men were convicted of a crime because they looked different. They didn’t conform to cultural norms, and the police took that as a threat to the community. Because they had long hair and wore black, they were probably murderers.
With that aside, with that understanding, imagine living on death row for having long hair and dressing in black. Imagine a situation that starts when you are a youthful eighteen year old and lasts eighteen years. Imagine that you are in a small room by yourself for twenty-three hours a day because you had long hair and wore black. I can’ t speak for you, reader, by I don’t know how I would take it. I can’t imagine the anger that would boil inside me. Honestly, it is terrifying to think of. What happens when you are wrongly convicted? It’s one of the many reasons I don’t believe in capital punishment: innocent people should NEVER die. (Ahem. That goes for drone strikes too, Mr. President.)
Keeping all of that in mind, Damien Echols was a high school dropout. Damien Echols didn’t make it to the tenth grade. Yet, when faced with the unimaginable fear of wrongful conviction and death row, he found “incredible reserves of patience, spirituality, and perseverance that kept him alive and sane while incarcerated for nearly two decades.” While in prison he married, and became an ordained Buddhist minister. Faced with such gross tragedy, unable to leave a tiny cell, Echols continued to live his life. And this high school dropout, convicted murderer, has written a book that was born compelling and grew into a “riveting, explosive classic of prison literature.”
Read this inspiring tale. Find peacefulness in the worst situation. Listen to Damien Echols on the September 25 episode of On Point with Tom Ashbrook here. Happy reading, y’all.