Former Arkansas Death Row inmate Damien Echols was about to die in solitary confinement. The guards wouldn’t bring him food, but in the shadows convicted killer Don Davis was able to sneak him a few morsels to eat. Echols said the act by Davis saved his life and he was in Little Rock, along with actor Johnny Depp on Friday afternoon to return the favor.
Davis is slated to be executed Monday unless a federal judge intervenes. Echols, who was released from Death Row in 2011 after powerful new DNA evidence was discovered in his case, told Talk Business & Politics he thinks Arkansas shouldn’t execute seven inmates during the last two weeks of April.
“I’m back here … this is where they tried to kill me,” Echols said. “They (the state) can make mistakes … look at me.” He later added “I would have been one of those eight.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson on March 6 set execution dates two at a time over an 11-day period starting April 17 and ending April 27.
• April 17: Don Davis, Bruce Ward;
• April 20: Stacey Johnson, Ledelle Lee;
• April 24: Marcel Williams, Jack Jones; and
• April 27: Jason McGehee, Kenneth Williams.
However, the State Parole Board on April 4 recommended the governor grant clemency to one of the condemned, Jason McGehee. On April 6, U.S. District Court Judge D. Price Marshall ruled in federal court that there must be at least a 30-day period before the Parole Board makes that recommendation. That would place McGehee’s execution past April 30, when the state’s supply of midazolam, one of three drugs used in its executions, expires.
DEATH ROW CONFIDANTS
Hundreds gathered Friday on the capitol steps to rally and petition Gov. Asa Hutchinson to halt the executions. Numerous speakers took the podium, but Echols escorted by his wife, Lorri Davis-Echols, and Depp was the headliner.
Echols, along with his cohorts Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., were convicted of the 1993 slayings of three West Memphis 8-years-olds, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. The three boys were found nude, and tied ankle to wrist in a drainage ditch near their homes, May 6, 1993, one day after they vanished while playing in their neighborhood.
After the 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” was released by HBO, grave doubts surfaced as to the whether the teens, dubbed “The West Memphis Three” committed the crimes.
It was during this time Echols became acquainted with Don Davis, who is no relation to his wife, Lorri Davis-Echols. In prison, you don’t really make friends, but you form bonds with people who will “have your back,” Echols said. Davis was one of his confidants, he said.
Davis admits he shot and killed 62-year-old Jane Daniel during a robbery of her Rogers-area home Oct. 12, 1990. Davis, who suffers from a low IQ according to his defense attorneys, has said more than once he regrets killing Daniel and doesn’t know why he pulled the trigger. The murder haunted Davis in his prison cell late at night, Echols said. The images of the innocent woman tormented him, and often cried when talking about what he did.
“It’s like watching somebody’s soul broken wide open,” he said.
Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released in 2011 after new DNA tests revealed there were many people at the crime scene, but no sample matched the three convicted men. There were impending juror misconduct charges in the case, and several key witnesses admitted they lied during the original trials. Prosecutor Scott Ellington agreed to allow the men to make Alford pleas in court. The plea is essentially a no-contest plea, but the defendant retains the ability to profess innocence, while at the same time acknowledging the state may have enough evidence to convict the defendant if the case went to court.
Legal and scientific experts have criticized the original convictions, and even the Alford pleas noting there isn’t any evidence that ties the men to the killings. Ellington has acknowledged more than once, the three would have received new trials and would have been acquitted, even though he has stated he still thinks the men are guilty.
LEAVING DEATH ROW
The day he left Death Row, Echols told three people he was leaving for good. He told Davis, convicted killer Marcel Williams, slated to be executed April 24, and his prison pastor. Since he left, Echols has not had any contact with Davis.
“He told me before I left to never come back,” he said.
A return to Arkansas haunted Echols for weeks, he told Talk Business & Politics. The days leading up to his trip to Little Rock were sleepless, he said.
“I might have gotten one or two hours of sleep,” he said. “I kept saying to myself ‘I can’t. I can’t do this,’” he said.
Echols visibly shook as he appeared in the shadows of the capitol with his wife, and Depp. He said the moment was “scary” but at the same time he knew it would be “good.” Paradise Lost Director Joe Berlinger had a film crew in tow with them. Depp didn’t answer questions from reporters. He told a Talk Business & Politics reporter he was there to support Echols.
“These people are my family,” Echols said. “Without them, I would have never been released.”
Thoughts of Davis and those other men’s executions compelled Echols to come back. It was strange stepping off an airplane in a state where he came close to being executed himself, he said. When asked what he would say to Davis if he got the chance to talk with him, Echols went silent for a moment.
“What do you say to somebody who is about to die … don’t lose hope. Don’t ever lose hope.”
Actor Johnny Depp (front left) and former Arkansas death row inmate Damien Echols (right) attended Friday’s rally at the Arkansas Capitol. Organizers said the rally was to petition Gov. Asa Hutchinson to halt seven executions set for April.