Echols tells story of life on death row

By Andrew DeMeo
On February 28, 2014

Death row on the Varner Unit Supermax, a facility run by the Arkansas Department of Correction, is a brutal place. Cells there can reach up to 120 degrees in the Arkansas heat. Sewage overflows often leave prisoners standing in their own feces. It is dark, incredibly filthy and unforgiving.

Damien Echols stayed there for 18 years and 76 days, enduring beatings, rats and routine 23 hour-a-day isolation, all for a crime he didn't commit.

"The only reason they didn't kill me," Echols said, addressing UNH students in the Strafford Room on Tuesday night, "was because someone on the outside knew what they were doing."

Echols was incarcerated on death row in 1994, after the bodies of three murdered boys were discovered in the town of West Memphis, Ark. A community- wide manhunt led to three young men, one of them an 18-year-old Echols, being arrested and tried after a botched investigation fueled by local fears of Satanism.

"I was told that my heavy metal posters and records proved I had no soul," Echols said of his trial.

The incident gained notoriety two years later, after the documentary "Paradise Lost" revealed the provincial hysteria and faulty justice system through which Echols was imprisoned. Over the next decade, one documentary became three, and a public outpouring of support for the falsely accused "West Memphis Three" led to their retrial and freedom in 2011.

Since his re-entrance into society, Echols has toured the country, telling his story and promoting his book and film. On Tuesday, Feb. 25, he visited UNH for a three-hour lecture and discussion about his ordeal in prison.

"It was really interesting and eye-opening," Kelly McCormac, a freshman social work major, said. "I was impressed with how openly he was able to talk about his experience."

Echols' visit to the state coincides with the creation of House Bill 1170, which would repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire. The House Criminal Justice and Public Works Committee approved the bill 14-3 in a vote Feb. 11. The bill goes before the house in March.

"It's the first time in the history of the United States that members of both parties have both supported a repeal for the death penalty," Robert Cushing, vice chair of the CJPW committee and sponsor of the bill, said.

The debate over the death penalty is an ongoing discussion among UNH students.

"I think it would be incorrect to say that either party, whether Democrats or Republicans, necessarily has an official stance on the penalty," Tyler Gullbrand, president of the UNH College Democrats, said. "Whether one's religious beliefs or moral convictions form an opinion that the death penalty is wrong or right lies in the individual. But it's still an important and relevant discussion."

According to Sue Siggelakis, who teaches a course on cruel and unusual punishment at UNH, the argument over the penalty is only one part of a larger debate surrounding the Eighth Amendment.

"The death penalty is only one aspect of the cruel and unusual debate," Siggelakis said. "Of course, if you want to look at it from a pragmatic standpoint, academics and sociologists often argue over whether or not the penalty actually deters crime. It is an ongoing debate."

For Damien Echols, however, things were a little simpler.

"The question you've got to ask yourself on death row," he said, "is how much do you want to keep living?"

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