Damien Echols was wrongly convicted of murder in the early 1990’s, along with two other boys, collectively known as the “West Memphis Three.” He would spend almost 18 years of his life on death row in Arkansas (“West Memphis” refers to an Arkansas town, not a Tennessee city). Ultimately, DNA evidence exonerated Echols and he was released (with a provision that he or the others could never sue the State for a wrongful conviction) in 2011. Since then, he has focused on two things, his art, and speaking out against the death penalty.
Today, in Arkansas, anti-death penalty advocates are gathering to protest and bring attention to the State’s plan to execute seven prisoners in “rapid succession” over just a few days. The State argues that these seven have been incarcerated so long that their legal options have expired and it is time to “do the deed” and finish the job. The means of execution Arkansas is using is a controversial method of lethal injection using drugs like midazolam that the manufacturers, other experts, and some courts have agreed should not be used for varying reasons. Midazolam is the same drug that saw Oklahoma mired in controversy when they used it and at least three executions were botched. Arkansas also is saying that their supply of midazolam will expire at the end of the month, also causing the “big rush” to kill.
Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote a scathing dissent when the drug was involved in a case they reviewed. Justice Breyer joined her in that dissent:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a passionate dissent to the decision, arguing that the court should have weighed whether the state’s use of midazolam — the controversial drug used in several recent high-profile botched executions — constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and that inmates should have easier access to an alternative.
“What cruel irony that the method that appears most humane may turn out to be our most cruel experiment yet,” Sotomayor wrote. Justice Stephen Breyer joined in her dissent.
It isn’t just the particular method of execution that has brought people together to protest today, however, it is the very idea of executing anyone. Unlike 20 years ago, when the death penalty’s favorable rating was at an all-time high, they may actually change some minds. Pew Research’s polling shows the death penalty’s popularity is at a 40 year low, at around 49 percent. In 1995, it was at 80 percent.
Today’s featured speaker at the protest will be Damien Echols. Before his appearance at the rally, Echols gave an interview to MSNBC’s Katy Tur. The MSNBC host asked Echols about his reaction to the State of Arkansas’s announcement about the executions. Echols told Tur that it was “horrific” as he knew most of these people from his time in prison. Some of them he would describe as simply not mentally competent. One watches the news, not for the news but to stare at the “time and temperature” in the corner of the screen believing he was being sent secret messages through it. Another was convinced that Echols’s mom was breaking INTO their jail and raping him in order to impregnate him.
Another one of them, Don Davis, Echols described as the “only reason he survived” the experience of death row. Davis stood up for him when he was being beaten by guards, snuck him food when he was being starved by prison officials, and other things.
Tur also asked him what he would say to family members who are suffering in waiting for the execution to happen. Family members who need closure and all that goes with that.
Echols was very sympathetic to them and said that he could totally understand their pain. He asked that they take a step back and realize that the execution will not bring that:
“I completely and absolutely understand what they are saying 100 percent. Even listening to what you just played for me it’s incredibly hard to hear that because you can hear the pain in their voices — you hear the misery in their voices. And believe me, I’ve known pain in my life and it is not something that I like to hear someone else experiencing.” He went on to say, “As hard as it is, maybe look at it from a logical, rational and intellectual viewpoint instead of just letting the rush of emotion get to you. I don’t believe that killing another person can ever be called justice. I don’t think that’s justice. But we know that lots of people that have had family members murdered — after the person who murdered their family member is executed that they always say that they felt it would bring them some sense of closure, that it would be over. They say afterward that it didn’t. It didn’t work. It didn’t bring their family member back, it didn’t heal the pain inside them. It just created another vacuum for another family to experience the pain of having one of their family put to death.”
Perhaps it is a bit much to ask the family to think in a more “rational” manner but that’s why the rest of us are here. That’s why Echols is here — to remind people that executions don’t bring closure. Executions are way too often killing the wrong person. Justice is not having the state arbitrarily kill people. This is before we even get to the racial elements in sentencing and potentially unconstitutional methods that deliver “cruel and unusual punishment” in botched executions — potentially to innocent people.
We as a society need to evolve beyond the primal desire for vengeance. Vengeance is not justice. Justice is justice and killing is not justice.
Check out the full interview below with a short prolog on “how we got here” covering the Arkansas executions and protests below:
Arkansas is scheduled to begin the execution of seven men on Monday, April 17th. Protests are ongoing and have already saved one life (originally, Arkansas planned on executing eight men).
Featured image via screen capture from youtube.com.