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Former Arkansas Death Row Inmate Damien Echols Calls on State to Halt Plans to Kill 8 Men This Month

Web ExclusiveApril 17, 2017
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In this web exclusive, we continue our conversation with Damien Echols, who was freed from Arkansas’s death row in 2011. Over the weekend, he returned to Arkansas to protest the state’s plans to execute eight men this month. Echols was one of the West Memphis Three, the young men in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were imprisoned for the 1993 slayings of three 8-year-old boys after an investigation largely fueled by unsubstantiated rumors of a Satanic ritual.

Watch Part 1 || Legal Chaos in Arkansas as Judges Halt State Plan to Carry Out Unprecedented Spate of Executions

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StoryApr 17, 2017Legal Chaos in Arkansas as Judges Halt State Plan to Carry Out Unprecedented Spate of Executions
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Arkansas’s plan to carry out an unprecedented series of executions has been thrown into chaos, after judges ruled to temporarily halt the state’s plan. In total, Arkansas had planned to execute eight prisoners this month, in its rush to carry out the executions before the state’s supply of the sedative midazolam expires.

In this web exclusive, we continue our conversation with Damien Echols, who was freed from Arkansas’s death row in 2011. He served on death row. He knew all of these men. He served on death row for 18 years, before ultimately he was released. Over the weekend, Damien Echols returned to Arkansas to protest the state’s rapid-succession execution plans.

Damien Echols was one of the West Memphis Three, the young men in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were imprisoned for the 1993 slayings of three 8-year-old boys after an investigation largely fueled by unsubstantiated rumors of a Satanic ritual. His story was told in the film West of Memphis.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Nothing ever happens in West Memphis, Arkansas.

STEVE JONES: We’ve had three children missing since last night.

UNIDENTIFIED: Three young boys murdered in cold blood.

UNIDENTIFIED: It appeared that they had been sexually mutilated.

PAUL FORD: Is it your opinion that these crimes were motivated by occult beliefs?


UNIDENTIFIED: Arrested at 2:44 p.m., charged with three counts of capital murder.

UNIDENTIFIED: It was like a nuclear bomb going off in the courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED: Life imprisonment without parole. Death by lethal injection.

JOHN FOGLEMAN: “And the terror of mortal men, look favorably on my sacrifice.”

A case with a confession would be easier as opposed to one without direct evidence.

UNIDENTIFIED: I read the confession on the front page just like everybody else did.

UNIDENTIFIED: Jessie is borderline mentally retarded.

UNIDENTIFIED: The statement was put in his mouth by the police.

JESSIE MISSKELLEY JR.: They beat up all three of them.

DET. BRYN RIDGE: Then they took their clothes off.


DET. BRYN RIDGE: Then they tied them.

JESSIE MISSKELLEY JR.: Then they tied them up.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: This case is nothing out of the ordinary. You’re dealing with three kids, bottom of the barrel, poor white trash.

DANIEL STIDHAM: Here’s the state of Arkansas refusing to let the truth shine on this case.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer from the film West of Memphis. Well, Damien Echols joins us for Part 2 of our conversation. We’re having you on today because of this unprecedented quick-succession series of executions, eight men in 11 days, simply because one of the execution drugs is going to expire. But before we talk about these men, some of whom you know very well—you served on death row with all of them, Damien—I was just wondering if you can share with us more of your story. You were first slated to die what? More than 20 years ago?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: May 5th of 1994 was my original execution date. And I got closer to that than I should have, because the court-appointed attorneys that I had, they were pretty incompetent. They didn’t even realize they had to file for a stay of execution. They thought somehow it just happened magically by itself. So we got pretty close to my execution date before someone told them, “You better file something to stop the state from killing him, or it’s going to happen.”

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, though we did this is Part 1, explain your story, how you ended up on death row and how you ended up not only off death row but free.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I came from a really small town in Arkansas, you know, really hardcore fundamentalist, right-wing town, where I did not fit in at all. I was the town freak, the town reject. So that automatically made me suspect. You know, they said, whenever I went to trial—first, the police find three 8-year-old children that had been murdered. Immediately, they start all this speculation that it was some sort of Satanic sacrifice, all of this sort of thing. And then they present evidence against me, things like the fact that I had Metallica T-shirts, the fact that I listened to heavy metal music, the fact that I had books on ceremonial magic—all these things, that’s what they presented as evidence in my trial.

But what they ended up doing was picking up a mentally handicap boy from our neighborhood. He was 17 years old. He had an IQ of somewhere between 69 and 72. And over a period of somewhere between 12 and 14 hours, they tortured a confession out of him. He couldn’t get any details of the crime scene right, because he wasn’t actually there, but that didn’t matter. The only thing they cared about was the fact that they had gotten him to say, yes, he did it. He had implicated me and another guy at the same time. That was all it took. They sentenced me to death based on that alone.

AMY GOODMAN: How old were you at the time?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I was 18 years old whenever I went in, and spent a little over 18 years in, so literally half my life was spent on death row.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that brings us to the men who are slated to be executed over this next 11 days. You knew them all?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I knew every single one of them to one degree or another. Some of them, I spent the entire time I was in prison with. Some of them came in relatively close to the time that I would leave. But they were all people that I knew. You know, in prison, you don’t really develop friendships the way people in the outside world do. The closest thing that you can come to, if you’re really, really lucky, is you find someone that you have enough of an understanding with that you say, “No matter what happens, I will watch your back. You watch my back. And we’ll look out for each other.” And for me, that’s what Don Davis was. He’s one of the men that they’re getting ready to execute.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Don Davis.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Don was a—he has an IQ, they’re estimating now, of somewhere around 70, in that neighborhood. I mean, he wasn’t the brightest guy in the world. But he was steadfastly loyal. And there were times—you know, at one point, we used to go to what we called church together, where a Roman Catholic priest would come in and bring communion to inmates on death row. And we’re sitting in there talking one day, and I don’t even know how we got on the subject, but he just started crying, because he was—he started talking about—you know, he freely admitted he was guilty. He said he did it.

AMY GOODMAN: What did he do?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: He had killed a woman during a home invasion, during a robbery. And he said it tortured him every single day for the rest of his life since he had done it. I mean, he was crying when he was saying this. He was saying he wishes he could actually be as evil as the people trying to kill him said he was, so that he didn’t have a conscience and it wouldn’t bother him anymore. Every single night when he went back to his cell, it’s all he thought about all night long. This was a guy who has been in there for 25 years and has had an incredible amount of time to reflect on what he’s done, and was truly regretful to the core of his being.

AMY GOODMAN: If the state of Arkansas gets its way, Don Davis will be the first scheduled execution. He was sentenced more than 25 years ago for the murder of Jane Daniel. Let’s turn to Jane Daniel’s daughter, Susan Khani, speaking to Fox16 News.

SUSAN KHANI: When I came back and—you know, her brains were on the wall, on the ceiling and the walls. I don’t want him to be able to speak my mother’s name ever again. He’s the last person that saw her, you know, at her most vulnerable time. I’ve been promised this, couple of times. And I just hope this time it goes through. He can suffer. I don’t care, because we’ve suffered long enough. And my mom really suffered.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jane Daniel’s daughter, Susan Khani. Jane Daniel was murdered by Don Davis. And, Damien Echols, as you said, Don Davis says—he admits—that he did this murder. You hear her say, “I don’t care” if he suffers. Your thoughts?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Well, the only thing that I would say is, number one, I completely and absolutely understand your pain, and I understand your thirst for vengeance, for lack of a better term, because I feel the same thing myself. You know, these people tried to murder me. These people tried to murder me in cold blood, knowing that I was innocent. I have that desire for these people to be held accountable for what they’ve done to me. You know, these people were willing to murder me. And that’s a huge thing for me to wrestle with. So I understand that desire for wanting someone held accountable for what they’ve done to you. But if we sink to the same level as the people that we have this desire for vengeance against, then we’re just like them. We have to be the bigger person, number one.

And number two, even though you have cases where the people are guilty, when you’re carrying out executions, like I was saying earlier, this is done by humans. This is done by people. People are not infallible. People make mistakes. And when you’re casting a net this wide, when you’re executing, you know, mass numbers of people like this, you’re going to get innocent people caught up in that nest—in that net. So, the question is: Are you willing to see innocent people die just so that you can get the guilty ones at the same time, or are you willing to, you know, be a bigger person, even though it hurts, even though it absolutely hurts, and be better than the people that are actually carrying out the murders?

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about Bruce Ward?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Bruce Ward was another—another guy that I spent the entire time that I was in prison with. He’s been there for about 25 years now. And this is a man who has no contact with reality whatsoever. He doesn’t even understand really what it means that they’re getting ready to execute him. He thinks being on death row is some sort of way that God is preparing him to become a minister. In the mornings, he would sit and watch the news, sometimes for hours at a time, but he wasn’t paying any attention to anything on the news. He was staring at the time and temperature in the corner of the screen, because he said they were sending—”they,” whoever they is, was sending him secret messages through the time and temperature. You know, this is a man who has no comprehension of what’s about to happen to him.

AMY GOODMAN: So you went back to Arkansas, despite being extremely nervous to do this. This is the state that would have executed you more than 20 years ago.


AMY GOODMAN: How many times did you have an execution date set?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I only had an execution date one time, thankfully. My case spent a lot of time in limbo, just because the state was trying to prevent my case from going into federal court, because they were afraid, if it got out of the state and people saw what was happening, it was going to be reversed, I was going to be exonerated, the whole thing was going to be thrown out, and they were going to be held responsible. So they did whatever they could to keep it in state-level court for many years, which is why I only had one execution date, versus people who have several.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain how you got out. So you’re charged as part of this Satanic cult, killing this three 8-year-old boys.


AMY GOODMAN: This horrible, horrible attack.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: So, when we got out, keep in mind that, to this day, there has never, ever been anyone exonerated on death row in Arkansas, ever. The state still maintains that they are infallible, they’ve never made a mistake, they’ve never killed an innocent person. In my case, I wasn’t even exonerated. I had to take something called an Alford plea. This is something most Americans have never even heard of.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is after DNA testing is done of the three boys.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: After DNA testing and after new eyewitnesses come forward. During the DNA testing, they found that not only did it exclude me and the other two men, but it matched one of the victims’ family members. Well, we had three new eyewitnesses come forward and say they saw him with all three victims within an hour of the time they were murdered.

AMY GOODMAN: And they—none of these people had come forward during the trial.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: They said the police never even asked them anything. These were people who lived right there in the surrounding houses, and they said the police never asked them if they saw anything, never asked them if they knew anything. It wasn’t until my attorneys and my investigators went out and started questioning people that this information even came up. If not for that, they would have killed me. And even after that information came to light, even after the DNA testing, even after the eyewitnesses, I still sat on death row for two more years, while the state of Arkansas tried to figure out how they’re going to handle this, because they didn’t want to be held responsible. They didn’t want to admit they had sentenced an innocent person to death.

So what they came up with, they sat down with my attorneys, and they came up with something called an Alford plea. An Alford plea means—it makes no sense whatsoever. It means you are accepting a guilty plea while being able to legally maintain your innocence. Makes no sense. And the entire reason that it exists is so that the state can’t be held responsible for what they’ve done to you. I can never sue the state of Arkansas.

AMY GOODMAN: And so they agreed, you and the other two men that you were imprisoned with?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Absolutely, just because—

AMY GOODMAN: And were they on death row?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: No. One of them was doing life without parole, and one of them had a life sentence plus a 40-year sentence. And I agreed to it just because—you know, people ask me, “Did you have to wrestle with it? Did you have to, you know, think about it for a long time?” And the answer was no, because I was dying. I knew, you know, I was losing my eyesight. My health was just—was horrendous. It was rapidly deteriorating. I knew that, one way or another, if I didn’t take this plea, I was going to die in there, whether it was from them executing me or whether it was from just failing health of 20 years with no medical care, no dental care, no sunlight, bad nutrition. I knew that I was living on borrowed time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, now you’re wearing sunglasses because of your sensitivity to light.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And that came from prison?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: And it keeps—it keeps—it’s still degenerating. Whenever I first got out, I went to a doctor, and he said there was a 50/50 chance that maybe it would get better. But what happened is that, instead of getting better, it’s actually been degenerating in the entire time out here. I may very well end up blind.

AMY GOODMAN: On Friday, Bishop Anthony Basil Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, also spoke at a protest against the death penalty.

BISHOP ANTHONY BASIL TAYLOR: We are no different from the crowd that called for Jesus’ death, because we continue to call for the death of criminals. We forget about Moses, who murdered an Egyptian and fled to Midian, which is where he had his experience with the burning bush. If God could use a murderer to set his people free and lead his people to the promised land, then there is hope for everyone. Like the good thief hanging by Jesus’ side, wouldn’t he have been a good candidate for rehabilitation?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bishop Anthony Basil Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas. He was speaking on Friday at a major anti-death penalty rally ahead of the executions this week. Again, they’ve been stopped, not clear what will happen. You were there, Damien?


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on the power of those who bear witness outside? And when you were inside, when you were on death row, were you aware of people on the outside?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: When I was inside, I was aware, just because, you know, I would see things on the news. I would call home every day. I would talk to my wife, and she would tell me, you know, Peter Jackson is doing this, or these people in this town in—

AMY GOODMAN: The filmmaker.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Exactly. He’s doing this today, or the people in this town in Arkansas are doing this fundraiser or this benefit. So I was aware of it. But at the same time, it almost seemed like something that was happening in another world, because as soon as I hang up that phone, I’m going right back to just trying to survive another day in prison. So it’s almost like—you know, it almost feels so far away that it’s hard for it to have an impact on you.

I was there at the protest. It was—I think it is something that in—a lot of the guys on death row watch the news on a regular basis, so it probably means a great deal to them seeing people out there, knowing that not everyone wants you dead, not everyone wants to spill your blood. There are people out there who are fighting to make sure that you’re not put to death by the state. And I think that usually—that really does give the guys in there a lot of hope.

AMY GOODMAN: You say you have proof of those the state has wanted to kill or has killed who are innocent.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Absolutely. You know, I sat on death row in Arkansas doing everything I could, fighting for my life to keep these people from killing me. The only reason that my case was any different from any of the other guys—I could have very well been on this list of people they’re getting ready to execute right now. The only reason my case was any different is because I was fortunate enough to have, number one, a wife that fought 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There were times we couldn’t even afford to pay the legal fees anymore, and she took out personal loans just to pay for legal fees. And then I had people like Johnny Depp. I had people like Eddie Vedder, Margaret Cho, Henry Rollins. You know, all over the world, huge communities of support came to my aid, because a documentary had been made about the case. If not for that documentary, I would be just like the rest of these guys.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Joe Berlinger’s Paradise Lost.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Paradise Lost, yes. He and I are actually working together again. This isn’t just an Arkansas issue. You know, we have, right now, Joe—Joe Berlinger directed Paradise Lost, which is what brought my case to the attention of the world. He’s working on another series, which starts tonight. I think it’s on Investigation Discovery. It’s about a guy named Richard Glossip in Oklahoma. This guy has had three last meals so far. They’ve actually had him on the table with the needle in his arm, getting ready to kill him, before he was given a stay of execution. And that’s happened numerous times so far. So it’s not just an Arkansas thing. This happens all over the country, and people aren’t aware of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, we spoke to Megan McCracken, attorney with the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. She described exactly what midazolam, the drug, that is set to expire, the reason eight men are set to die in 11 days, so that they execute them before the drug expires—exactly what midazolam is.

MEGAN McCRACKEN: Midazolam is a anti-anxiety drug, a benzodiazepine. It is potent as an anti-anxiety drug, and it’s used perioperatively around surgery. But it is not an anesthetic drug. So that means it’s not used to take a person who is awake and conscious, and used alone—it’s not used alone to put that person under surgical anesthesia and then keep that person there. And the reason that’s relevant is because that’s what’s needed for an execution to be humane, to comport with the Constitution. And so, this drug is inappropriate for the task. And so you have this situation created by the state where it’s rushing to use a drug before it expires, even though the drug itself is inappropriate for the use.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Megan McCracken, an attorney with the Death Penalty Clinic at University of California, Berkeley. Interestingly—and I wanted to get your comment on this, Damien—two drug companies are asking a federal judge to prevent Arkansas from using their drugs in the planned execution. They filed amicus briefs with the lawsuits this past weekend. Fresenius Kabi—I’m not sure how to pronounce it, but Fresenius Kabi USA and West-Ward Pharmaceuticals were granted permission to file these friend-of-the-court briefs by the prisoners, aimed at halting their own executions. Explain what this means. Some people consider corporations people, but they’re not—there has been this movement around the world, especially with European drug companies, who remember well World War II and drugs being used to kill. They don’t want to be involved in executions.

DAMIEN ECHOLS: Exactly. Keep in mind, these are medical companies. These are companies designed to help people with medical problems, to help people undergo surgeries, to help people get over debilitating ailments and illnesses. They never designed these drugs to put people to death with. And they’re outraged at the fact that it’s being done. And people speak about this as if it’s, you know, like a really smooth, easy process, like you’re taking your pet to the vet to get put to sleep. And in actuality, that’s not what takes place at all. There was one man who had to be given 15 doses of this drug before they could finally kill him, and still, after 15 doses, he laid on the table gasping and making noise for two hours before he finally died. So it’s not like it’s a smooth, easy process at all. These drugs were never meant to be used for this purpose.

AMY GOODMAN: What evidence do you have of people on death row being innocent, outside of yourself, in Arkansas?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: A lot of it is just looking at their cases and seeing exactly what happened in my case—you know, for example, confessions that don’t even match the scene of the crime, or eyewitnesses that say, “No, this person could not have possibly have committed this murder, because they were with us at the time,” and these people were never called to the witness stand, never interviewed by the police. You know, you have witnesses. You have forensic testing. You have all sorts of things. Since—since they started doing DNA testing, 157 people have been exonerated from death row. A hundred and fifty-seven. That gives us an idea of how many innocent people they’ve killed before they were able to do some of the testing they’re doing now.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Damien, it was hard for you to go back to protest in Arkansas, because this is the state that wanted to kill you. But you overcame your anxiety, and you went back. What are the—what are the long-lasting psychological effects of having been on death row for 18 years, for you?

DAMIEN ECHOLS: I’ve been out for about five-and-a-half years now, and I’m still not back to normal. I’ve seen improvement in the past five years, but keep in mind that not only had I been on death row for almost 20 years, I had been in solitary confinement for almost the last decade of that. So I literally went overnight from a decade of solitary confinement to being on the streets of Manhattan. And it completely and absolutely psychologically devastated me, to the point where I needed care 24/7. I had to have someone with me at all times for the first year that I was out. I would try to do basic things that people take for granted, you know, like read a book. I read voraciously when I was in prison, sometimes five books a week. When I got out, I would try to read a book, and I would read the same page over and over and over, because I couldn’t—I was so shattered, I couldn’t retain what I was reading from one page. I couldn’t watch movies. I couldn’t watch television. I had to, in essence, have a babysitter with me at all times. You know, you don’t get used to being in prison in a single day; you don’t get used to being out of prison in a single day. It’s still—I still have things to this day that I wrestle with on a daily basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Damien Echols, we want to thank you so much for being with us, freed from death row in Arkansas in 2011, after being on death row for 18 years. He was one of the West Memphis Three, the young men in West Memphis, Arkansas, who were imprisoned for the '93 slayings of three 8-year-old boys after an investigation largely fueled by unsubstantiated rumors of a Satanic ritual. This weekend, Damien traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protest the state's plan to execute eight prisoners in 11 days. He knows all eight of those prisoners. We will keep you posted on what happens. The executions have been stayed at this point, though if a stay is vacated, they could be executed as early as today. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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