Damien Echols Says He Is Proof Arkansas Sends 'Innocent People to Death' – New York Times
LITTLE ROCK — One by one, the speakers at the anti-death-penalty rally took a turn behind the lectern on the Capitol steps. Hundreds listened as they spoke of light and its unique ability to drive out the darkness. Then there was a stir off to the side.
A man in black, tall and lean, appeared with a small entourage and runic tattoos snaking up his arms and neck. He was not a rock star, but a kind of Lazarus: Damien Echols was back in Arkansas.
In an instant, news cameras and gawkers flowed toward him. Mr. Echols, 42, is one of the so-called West Memphis Three, men freed from prison in August 2011 despite their convictions in a grisly child murder case. In the nearly six years since his release from Death Row, Mr. Echols had made just one brief return visit to Arkansas.
It is a place he tries to avoid. He still refers to it as the state that tried to kill him.
He lives in New York City now, and he struggled mightily with the idea of coming here at all. But soon, he, too, was at the lectern on Friday, after a clap on the shoulder from his friend, the actor Johnny Depp. Like the others, Mr. Echols implored Gov. Asa Hutchinson to abandon his plan to execute seven convicted murderers in a span of 10 days.
Over the next 24 hours, the drama would shift to the courts, with a federal judge issuing an injunction, and a Pulaski County Circuit Court issuing a rulingtemporarily blocking the executions, which were to begin on Monday. The Arkansas Supreme Court also issued a stay of execution for one of the condemned men, Bruce Ward.
As of Saturday, much was in the hands of the appellate courts. If the state overcomes the legal challenges and schedules the six remaining executions before the end of the month, it would be a rate unprecedented in the modern history of the American death penalty.
Mr. Echols told the crowd at the Capitol that the matter was personal for him: The convicts were all men he knew. For 18 years, he had waited with them to die.
“I’ve seen them at their best; I’ve seen them at their worst,” he said. “I’ve seen them laugh, I’ve seen them cry. And strangely enough, it was these guys that they’re getting ready to execute — the ones that the local politicians will tell you are irredeemably evil; they can’t be saved or redeemed — these are the people who showed me more kindness, compassion and generosity than any of the good people that are trying to kill them ever did.”
The crush of state-sponsored killings has reignited a national debate over capital punishment at a time of confusing crosscurrents in the United States, with President Trump, who has expressed support for the death penalty, ascending to the White House even as executions fell to a 25-year low last year, and polls showing public support for it at its lowest level in decades.
To many, Mr. Echols’s celebrated release from Death Row in Arkansas in 2011 constitutes its own argument for abolishing capital punishment. In 1994, he and two friends were convicted, as teenagers, of murdering three young boys in West Memphis, Ark., only to be released, after nearly two decades, thanks in part to DNA evidence that raised questions about their case.
The bodies of the boys had been bound and mutilated. The three defendants had been suspected of being part of a satanic cult. Mr. Echols, the suspected ringleader, was sentenced to death, while the other two, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., received life sentences.
In June 1996, HBO aired a documentary about the case, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” The film and subsequent documentaries prompted many observers, prominent actors and musicians among them, to believe that the three teenagers had been targeted for being different.
Mr. Echols, in particular, wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal music and considered himself a Wiccan. When he was set free on Aug. 19, 2011, after a riveting court hearing in Jonesboro, he was spirited away in a van rented by the rock singer Eddie Vedder.
Mr. Echols left Arkansas that day.
But his record had not been cleared. The release of the three came in the context of a rare arrangement known as an Alford plea, in which they pleaded guilty to the murders but could claim that they did so because it was in their best interest. The deal also allowed them to proclaim their innocence. But not everyone was convinced. As they walked from the courtroom toward freedom, someone in the crowd shouted, “Baby killers!”
Support for the death penalty continued in conservative Arkansas — even, in some instances, among people who thought the case involving Mr. Echols had been botched. “I really studied the West Memphis Three case very, very closely,” said Rebecca Petty, a Republican state representative. “I think they were wronged.”
Ms. Petty’s life has also been marred by violence. She has been waiting 17 years for the execution of the man who was convicted in the 1999 rape and murder of her 12-year-old daughter, and the experience helped prompt her to run for office in 2014 as an advocate for crime victims. (The man, Karl Roberts, is not one of the seven set to be executed this month.) She said she believed that the death penalty was warranted in cases where the proof is incontrovertible.
“There are times when, with a grave crime, you deserve a grave punishment,” she said.
Mr. Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, settled in New York, with a brief interlude in Wiccan-friendly Salem, Mass. In his 18 years in prison, Mr. Echols said, his interest in pagan religious practice only strengthened. He used it to cope with the physical and spiritual torment. Since his release, he has taught tarot card classes, co-produced a documentary about his experience, and written a book, “Life After Death.” Sometime after the book’s publication in 2012, he made his only other trip back to Arkansas, speaking at a memoir-writing class in the small city of Conway.
When the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty contacted him and asked him to speak at the rally, he panicked.
“I’m still scared. I’m still absolutely horrified,” Mr. Echols said in a telephone interview from his home in New York on Wednesday, just before flying to Little Rock. “These people could try to kill me again. They set me up one time, they could easily do it again.”
Eventually, he decided that he could not live with himself if he stayed home.
Two of the men scheduled to be put to death this month, Stacey Johnson and Ledell Lee, argue that they are innocent. Many of the last-minute legal moves to postpone the executions have focused not on questions of guilt, but on procedural matters, some surrounding the sedative midazolam, part of a three-drug cocktail that has contributed to botched executions elsewhere. The Arkansas executions have been scheduled so close together because state officials are concerned that they may not be able to acquire more midazolam after the state’s current batch expires at the end of April.
Mr. Echols’s argument is simpler. He has said he considers himself living proof “that the state of Arkansas does indeed sentence innocent people to death, despite how infallible these politicians would have you believe the system is.”
When he arrived on Death Row, he said, a fellow inmate, Don Davis, smuggled him food when guards denied it to him. Mr. Echols said it was an act that would have earned Mr. Davis 30 days in solitary confinement if he had been caught.
Mr. Davis was sentenced to death in 1992 for fatally shooting a woman in Rogers, Ark., and was one of two men originally scheduled to be executed on Monday.
After that act of kindness, the two men did not become friends, exactly, Mr. Echols said, but they did become close. One day, he said, Mr. Davis confessed his crime in a flood of tears.
“It just looked like somebody whose insides were cracking open,” Mr. Echols said. “He said he wished he could be as evil as people say that he was, so he wouldn’t be tormented by what he’d done anymore. He said he’d lay awake on his bunk every single night, ever since he had been there, constantly thinking about it, constantly regretting it.”
Mr. Echols said that Mr. Ward, the other man who was originally scheduled to be executed on Monday, was too mentally incapacitated to conduct a normal conversation. Before Death Row was moved to a more restrictive location in 2003, the condemned men had occasional access to common areas. Mr. Echols recalled Mr. Ward watching television news for hours, “But he wasn’t watching the news. He was watching the little time and temperature in the corner of the screen because he said ‘they’ were sending him secret messages.”
Mr. Ward was sentenced to death in 1990 for the slaying of an 18-year-old gas station clerk.
In the week before the scheduled executions, lawyers for Mr. Davis and Mr. Ward filed a motion with the Arkansas Supreme Court in which they argued that the executions should be stayed because their clients had been denied the chance to be diagnosed by independent mental health experts. Mr. Davis, the lawyers argue, is intellectually disabled, with a low I.Q.; Mr. Ward, they contend, has paranoid schizophrenia.
On Friday, Mr. Echols and his entourage disappeared soon after his speech, ducking the trailing cameras.
From there, he said, his plans were to cross the border into Tennessee, and to spend the night in Memphis.
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