When The State Gets It Wrong, Innocent People Die — I Was Almost One of Them

Damien Echols at a protest in Arkansas. Photo: provided by author

The state of Arkansas is hell-bent to go on a killing spree. Earlier this month, Governor Asa Hutchinson issued execution dates for eight men on death row, all to be carried out over the course of ten days. He didn’t care that there’s a chance at least two of them may be innocent, or that several others suffer mental disabilities that cross the line into the realm of handicaps. None of that meant anything to those trying with all their might to push these executions through. While several judges have stayed the executions for now, the mindset behind these rapid fire executions should scare all Americans. But perhaps one of the scariest parts, for me, is knowing I could have been the ninth man on the state’s death list.

Most people take a stance on the death penalty based on things they’ve read in the newspaper, saw on television, or by swallowing the hubris spewed by politicians eager to scare you into voting for them. Mine is not. My views on the death penalty are based on the fact that I spent over 18 years looking at the system from the inside, waiting for the state to murder me for a crime I did not commit. While awaiting execution at the hands of the state, I grew to know these men — the eight Hutchinson is rushing to kill — on a personal, face-to-face basis.

They were my companions on a journey through hell.

The state would have you believe that these men are irredeemably evil, that they are ravenous monsters bent on bloodshed, like creatures out of a horror movie. They are not. The men that local politicians are foaming at the mouth to kill showed me more kindness and simple humanity than anyone trying to execute them ever did. In fact, if not for one of them, Don Davis, I’d probably not have made it out of prison alive. He stood by my side and watched my back against sadistic prison guards who would have beaten me to death without a second thought.

Don is guilty. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’s guilty, and he makes no excuses for his actions 25 years ago. I once watched him break down crying because the guilt from what he’d done decades before was still eating him alive. No, despite the propaganda local officials are spreading to convince fear-stricken news watchers how “tough on crime” they are, it’s not monsters they’re trying to kill — they are insane, mentally handicapped, and remorseful men.

The state of Arkansas hasn’t carried out an execution in over a decade. So why the sudden, blood-crazed rush to carry out as many as possible? For one reason: the supply of drugs they use to carry out state-sanctioned murder are about to expire. You read that correctly. The rush of executions is so that the state can use up all of its lethal injection drugs before they go as sour as an old carton of milk.

Arkansas is currently embroiled in legal challenges, due to the fact that the company who makes one of these lethal drugs is suing for its return. They claim that Arkansas officials misled them about what the drugs were going to be used for, and they don’t want their product being used to kill people. Arkansas has so far refused to return the drug.

Instead, on the night of April 20th, they want to use these ill-gotten chemicals to kill a man who may very well be innocent.

One of the men scheduled to be executed is Ledell Lee. There is DNA evidence in his case, hair found at the crime scene, which the state has refused to test. A judge ruled that the DNA, which could exonerate him, should never be tested.

Keep in mind that in the history of the state of Arkansas, no one on death row has ever been exonerated. Local politicians maintain they have never made a mistake, that the system is infallible, and that they have never sentenced an innocent man to die. I know this is false, because for 18 years I sat on Arkansas’ death row and waited on the state to murder me for something I didn’t do. Even after DNA testing was completed in my case, which excluded me from the crime scene, I sat on death row for two more years as the state wrestled endlessly to cover it up and kill me. In the end, rather than take my chances in a legal system that was as rotten as a bad tooth, I took an Alford Plea. An Alford Plea is a paradox — it means you get to maintain your innocence, even as you accept a guilty plea. It makes no sense to anyone capable of logical thinking, and the only reason it exists is so the state can’t be held accountable for sentencing an innocent person to death. Part of this plea deal was that I could never sue the state of Arkansas for what they had done to me. Why would I take such a deal? Because I knew that if I didn’t, I’d eventually be right where Ledell Lee is now — looking into the face of death, despite having evidence that would have gained us exoneration in a less corrupt forum.

I might not be able to sue the state that took 18 years of my life, but I can share my experiences to counter the fear tactics Arkansas has used to justify their killing spree to the public. There are monsters in this story, that is certain — but as it turns out, some of them are our elected officials. If you don’t think a drug’s expiration date should be the deciding factor in whether someone deserves to die without a fair trial, you should contact Governor Hutchinson here.

Update (4/21/17): Last night, Ledell Lee was executed by the state of Arkansas. Nina Morrison, a lawyer for Mr. Lee who spent the evening arguing for a stay, released a statement condemning the decision. “Arkansas’s decision to rush through the execution of Mr. Lee just because its supply of lethal drugs are expiring at the end of the month denied him the opportunity to conduct DNA testing that could have proven his innocence.”

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