Next month the state of Arkansas will execute eight of its 33 inmates, in pairs over four evenings and by lethal injection.
For more than 18 years Damien Echols was one of those on death row. He knows all eight men and says Don W. Davis, scheduled to die April 17, "kept me alive."
Here's his full Arkansas Public Media interview with reporter Ann Kenda in which he talks about the justice of capital punishment, life on death row, life after death row and his wife, Lorri, whom he married while on the block.
Echols was reached at his home in New York.
KENDA: It seems that almost everyone is familiar with your story and it's just a natural question to ask, what is your reaction to the upcoming executions? They plan to do eight over a 10 day period which has never been done in another state. It's unprecedented, and people find themselves wondering what on earth you must think of this?
ECHOLS: It's kind of, uh, you know, it's something I don't even know if there's anything in the English language to be able to articulate this because, you know, it's not something that happens every day.
The number one thing at the top of the list would just be, kind of disbelief and absolute horror. Disbelief just that they're pushing so hard, and they've devalued human life to such a point where they're now lining people up like a slaughter house. It's not even the dignity of a person being executed on their own, which is horrifying in itself. You know, they've stripped away even that dignity now and you're being in essence shoved into a cattle chute and killed in mass numbers. It's absolutely horrifying.
You know, to this day there’s still been no exonerations from death row in Arkansas. No death row inmates have ever been exonerated. So, you know, just that alone is the state of Arkansas saying, we’ve never made a mistake. We’re infallible. It may happen in other states but not here, and we know that’s not true. So it's just absolute horror.
KENDA: Did your years there overlap with the eight men scheduled for execution now?
ECHOLS: Yeah, I know every single one of them. As a matter of fact, one of the guys who's to be executed, Don Davis, he was like a brother to me. I knew him the entire time I was there. We watched out for each other. He watched my back for 18 years. I would not have survived in there without him. He saved my life. He stood up against horrendously abusive prison guards on my behalf. He gave me food when I didn't have any.
In prison if you give another inmate food, that's punishable by 30 days in the hole. You get 30 days in the hole, you give up your privileges for the next year to have a contact visit with your family, your friends. He knew that and still gave me food when I had nothing.
It's a bizarre situation. Not only him who I knew personally, but two of the guys they’re getting ready to execute, two of the eight, are stark raving insane.
One of the guys at one point actually filed paperwork saying that my mother was breaking into the penitentiary, and raping him, trying to get him pregnant. And he believes it. He believed it with his whole heart. He has zero contact with reality whatsoever. Probably has no comprehension what it even means they're going to execute him. They don't care. They don't care.
KENDA: Part of their explanation for why so many executions at once, they said it would be less traumatic to just get a bunch over with at once. I assume you think it would actually be a lot more traumatic to do a bunch at once.
ECHOLS: Oh, absolutely. I think it absolutely would, in ways I can't even describe. You know, number one, like I said a second ago, you don't even allow anyone the slightest shred of dignity as they're dying. They know they're like chickens on a conveyor belt at a meat processing facility.
I think the real main reason they want to do it is because it's getting harder and harder to acquire the drugs to do lethal injections now just because a lot of the pharmaceutical companies do not want to give their drugs to a state that they know are going to use them for executions because that's not what the drugs were meant for. You know, these are medical drugs used for medical purposes, not to put people to death.
So it's harder and harder to acquire these drugs, and the drugs that Arkansas has right now are about to expire. They're going to go over the expiration date which means they can no longer be used. They want to use as much of those drugs as they possibly can before they go over the expiration date in order to save money and save them the trouble of having to go through the process of reacquiring them.
KENDA: And, during your time on death row, did the other inmates, did they instinctively know that you were innocent?
ECHOLS: It's hard to say. You know, because you're dealing with all different kinds of people across the board. You know, some of them, like I was saying about two of those guys who are getting ready to be executed are stark raving insane. So, things like guilt or innocence plays no role in their worldview or their existence or anything else. Some people did. Some people probably didn't care one way or another because they were so busy dealing with their own trauma and crisis and everything else, so it's all over the spectrum.
KENDA: Can you think of any scenario where you would support the death penalty, or should we get out of the death penalty business altogether because there's so many problems? What would be your idea of justice in extreme cases?
ECHOLS: People who are really deeply entrenched in this field and have been working in it for years and years, and have studied it not in just one particular state but across the board. You know, I've done a lot of talks at law schools and criminal justice classes and things to that nature where I've come in contact with a lot of people who are deeply entrenched in this field, and they're now estimating that maybe as many as one out of every 10 people on death row are innocent; one out of every 10 people executed are innocent. Now, if we said that one out of every ten airplanes would crash nobody would fly! Everybody would demand that this situation, this problem be addressed, looked at, remedied, fixed in some sort of way. But nobody's doing that with the death penalty because it doesn't affect most people. They don't care.
Then, we also have this whole thing, this sort of us versus them mentality when it comes to things like this, where people have to be punished. Um, and it's better to even, some people will even go so far as to say collateral damage can't be avoided. If one innocent person has to be killed so that we get nine guilty people, that's fine with them. They don't care.
Before you could ever institute something like the death penalty, in my opinion, you would have to reach a point where you were 100 percent certain that there was never a mistake going to be made, and that's not going to happen, because the situation is run by human beings. No human being is infallible. No human being is absolutely perfect and never makes mistakes. You're always, as long as you're killing people, you are always going to have innocent people being killed.
If we're telling people that only vile disgusting human beings kill people, then what does that make the executioners? What does that make the system? Because they're killing people. You know, even on the death certificate of the person executed, it says, 'Cause of death: Homicide.' So, they're admitting that they're killing people, but they're saying killing's wrong. You know, we don't rape rapists to show that rape is wrong. It's just, there's no logic to this.
KENDA: Now, according to the attorney general, all appeals have been exhausted and they're planning to go ahead with this, but I suppose there's always a chance of kind of a last-minute appeal. Are you planning to appear at any rallies or give any talks or do anything to try to help prevent this?
ECHOLS: I'm actually in the process right now arranging a trip to Arkansas. I believe I'm going to be there, it's either the 14th or the 15th. It's Good Friday. And I think we're going to do a rally on the steps of the Capitol. Jason Baldwin, I've heard, is also coming. And we're both going to speak on behalf of the men being executed and on behalf of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
So, Jason and I will both be there very shortly. You know, this isn't pleasant. It's not something that either one of us wants to do. It's sort of subjecting ourselves to another dose of trauma. You know, retraumatizing ourselves, even just going back into the situation, being that close to it. You know, when you walk off of death row, you kind of think, 'Eventually there's going to come a day when I can put this behind me for good. When I never look back at this again,' but so far that hasn't happened.
So far there's always something for some reason that pulls us back and that refuses to let us forget about this situation. And I don't think that either of us could live with ourselves if we just walked away knowing that other people were being victimized by the system.
KENDA: Have you been back to Arkansas since your release?
ECHOLS: I went back one time. Um, I taught a class on writing at the school there in Conway. They brought me in to do that. And when I did that I went straight in and straight out. You know, I didn't hang around. I didn't really see anything there. It's kind of going to be the same thing for this trip. I'm going to go straight in and straight out just because being there, just being in Arkansas, is such a tremendously traumatic thing for me still.
KENDA: And you've been out since 2011, so can you give an update on how it's going to get your life rebuilt?
ECHOLS: It's a gradual process. You know, you don't get used to being in prison in a single day and you don't get used to being out of prison in a single day.
There has been tremendous, tremendous amounts of trauma to try and get through. You know, going through things like post-traumatic stress disorder therapy. It's, there's still days whenever it's very, very haunting. Days whenever - I can't even describe it. It's incredibly unpleasant to even talk about it. To think about. But with every day that passes I guess I become a little more submerged in the normal world again and there's a been a gradual improvement over about five years.
I would say I'm probably up to maybe about 75-80 percent normal now. Whether I'll ever reach 100 percent normal or not remains to be seen, because like I said there's always something to, you know, re-ignite the trauma, like this situation.
KENDA: I imagine the upcoming executions are a major example of something that re-ignites the trauma.
ECHOLS: Oh, absolutely. You know, it's not only the executions itself, which would be horrific enough, but it's the fact that it's eight people that I lived with for years and years, that I came in contact with on a regular basis. You know, it's — bizarre doesn't even come close to describing what it's like.
KENDA: And, is there any healing to be found in the artwork that you do?
ECHOLS: I think I've found healing in a lot of places. Places that I wouldn't normally even think to look. There was, you know about the artwork, I've done I want to say maybe about 10 shows in the past five years that I've been out. Ten different art exhibits, and all the different places, all the different forums, and that is one of the things that's helped me.
Another thing is cycling. You know, I absolutely love bicycling. I bike on the streets of New York every single day that I can. There's something about it that just soothes me, calms my nerves, forces you to be in the present moment. It's like meditation without sitting still. You know, when you're riding a bike on the streets of New York and you're surrounded by traffic, it forces you to be in the present moment in order just to not be run over. So in that regard it's like an active meditation that pulls you out of anything within yourself, anything within your own mind that you might get trapped in, get stuck in, and forces you to be present and deal with the present moment.
So, bicycling does that for me, and the artwork did that for me. And you never really know where healing is going to come from.
KENDA: And part of your story was that you met the woman you married under crazy circumstances. Could you talk a little bit about that? I'm sure it took a readjustment from being married behind bars to being married on the outside.
ECHOLS: Oh, absolutely. Lorri [Davis] and I met in 1996. I'd been in prison three years at that point. We met in 1996 and we married in 1999. She is the reason that I'm alive right now. She did more work on this case than attorneys and investigators combined. You know, there were times when we couldn't even afford to pay legal fees anymore and she took out two personal loans just to pay legal fees.
When we were trying to find a match to the DNA at the crime scene, it was my wife Lorri who's out digging through garbage trying to find cigarette butts with people's DNA on them so that we could try and find a match. I would be dead right now if not for her.
And that role has kind of continued since I got out. I don't think anyone knew the devastating effect that walking out of the prison gates was going to have on me. It completely shattered me, because not only had I been in prison for almost 20 years, I'd been in solitary confinement for the last eight years of that. So I went literally from solitary confinement one day to the very next day being on the streets of Manhattan. And it was a complete overload that just shattered me in so many ways that I couldn't even take care of myself.
She kind of had to nurse me back to health. Even the first entire year that I was back out on the street.
KENDA: Wow. And I'm sure that along the way there was probably people who didn't think it was, you know, the best idea for a woman to fall in love with a death row inmate, and she probably had to, you know, there was probably some peer pressure about that.
ECHOLS: I wouldn't doubt it. There probably was. You know, you always had people who were outside the situation who didn't even, you know, really know what was going on with the situation, that always have opinions and things of that nature. Lorri and I, both, neither of us have ever really cared about that. We don't care about what other people think we should do.
We follow our internal moral compass. We follow our spiritual practice. We do just sort of what we know is the right thing to do. And for us, that has always been: We know that the key to our growth, the key to our development, to becoming better people, more intelligent people, is each other. You know, we have both grown more through the lessons that we've learned in our relationship than from anything else that we've ever gone through in our lives.
I always tell people that everything I know that's worth knowing, I learned from Lorri. Either directly from her, or through something that's happened in our relationship from her. And, she always says the same thing. So, we tend not to, I guess, worry too much about what outsiders would think of us.
Damien Echols along with Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were convicted of the murders of three boys in West Memphis, earning them the moniker The West Memphis Three. In 2011, after reconsidering the forensic evidence in the case, and in light of new evidence, the state of Arkansas offered the men Alford pleas, in this case allowing their guilty verdicts to stand but their sentences to be reconsidered in light of new facts. The men were freed immediately.
Since then, Echols has lived in New York City.
Arkansas Public Media, in partnership with KUAR-89.1, will have a series of reports from now through the last scheduled execution April 27. If you have questions you would like us to consider reporting on, contact reporter Ann Kenda at firstname.lastname@example.org, or managing editor Bobby Ampezzan, (501) 569-8489, or Bobby@ArkansasPublicMedia.org.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.