“I’m often plagued by thoughts that people will think of me only as either someone on death row or someone who used to be on death row.” So writes Damien Echols in the preface to his new book, Life After Death. Today, sitting with Echols in a sprawling Tribeca penthouse on loan from close friend Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, the sentiment is further explained: “It’s kind of a horrible thing to be remembered and to be known for something that was done to you,” he says. “It’s part of what drives me to want to succeed. I want to do something that stands on its own merit, that people see and that they care about completely independent of all the other stuff… all the case-related stuff.”
When speaking of “the case,” Echols manages to compartmentalize the agony he’s experienced over the last two decades, presenting it as something that sounds like an isolated legal concern—which is quite impressive. The case at hand is of course his false conviction for a triple homicide handed down by an Arkansas court in 1994. He was sentenced along with his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.—the trio would become known as the West Memphis Three—at the young age of 18. Baldwin and Misskelley, juveniles at the time, received life sentences. Damien, perceived as the ringleader, was sentenced to death. Rife with inconsistencies and false testimony, the trial presented the sensational theory that because the teenagers wore black, read Stephen King novels, and listened to heavy metal, they must have killed the victims, three neighborhood children, in a satanic cult ritual. The proceedings garnered widespread media attention, which led to the 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Initially focused on the public hysteria surrounding the case, the film ends up hypothesizing that the West Memphis Three are innocent, as do its two sequels, released in 2000 and 2011. last year, following a decision on behalf of the court regarding new DNA evidence, the three were released from prison—but only after agreeing to sign a controversial Alford plea, which states they will not sue the state of Arkansas.
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