feature by: Editor in Chief Riley Howard
Over 300 students and members of the Billings community gathered in the Fortin Center last Thursday for a lecture by Damien Echols, the author of this year’s Common Read, “Life After Death.”
“Life After Death” is Echols’ account of being wrongly accused and convicted of the satanic killing of three young boys in 1994. Echols spent 18 years on death row before being released in 2011.
Echols’ physical appearance stood out. He wore sunglasses, a black cut-off smock, black pants, combat boots, and a large silver skull-shaped ring on his hand. His highlighted jet black hair was slicked back and his pale skin was covered in tattoos that he designed himself. Perhaps what stood out more than his appearance was his calm demeanor and eloquent storytelling.
He began the presentation by describing his first weeks in prison. He told of how the prison guards placed him in solitary confinement, in “the hole,” which was a small, filthy, secluded room in the back of the prison.
“They can do pretty much anything they want to you and nobody will know about it.” Echols explained to a somber and attentive audience. “So they took me back there and for the next 18 days they beat the living hell out of me, They would come in, sometimes at midnight or one o’clock in the morning, and chain me to the bars of the cell, and take turns beating me, sometimes with night sticks. They beat me so severely at one point that I started to piss blood, and I was pretty sure I was going to die back there.”
Echols continued to describe the horrors of prison life and spoke of the people who helped him make it out alive. He told of a deacon from the Catholic Church who regularly brought communion to the inmates on death row and who found out about Echols’ horrific treatment in the hole. It wasn’t until the deacon threatened the warden that he would expose Echols’ inhumane treatment to the outside world that he was removed from solitary confinement.
The heroic acts of individuals bringing injustice to light was a theme Echols spoke on throughout the night. He gave credit to the people who made the documentaries and television shows that initially brought his case to the public eye.
After discovering Echols’ case, celebrities including actor Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam led a movement to free Echols. This included widespread protests and fundraising that covered court costs and further investigation of the case. Eventually, in 2011, Echols and the two other defendants were released on an Alford plea.
Echols explained the concept of an Alford plea early in the lecture.
“An Alford plea, what it is, it makes no sense whatsoever,” said Echols. “It means you are accepting a guilty plea, while still legally maintaining your innocence. I had never even heard of this thing before they came to me with it. What it’s for really is so you can’t sue the state for what they’ve done to you.”
Echols said that the state of Arkansas avoided an evidentiary hearing, which he believes would have eventually resulted in his acquittal, by threatening to use appeals and extensions to drag the case out for at least another five years. Echols said he is often asked if it was hard to accept the Alford plea after years of standing by his innocence.
“The answer is no. No because I was getting sicker and weaker by the day, I was losing my eyesight. I lived in hell on a daily basis. I also knew that there was every chance in the world that I would never live to see those five years, those 10 years pass. Violence happens in prison every day. They could easily have me stabbed to death for a pack of cigarettes. That’s how much my life was worth in there. So I took the deal.”
He also gave credit to his wife, Lorri Davis, for saving his life. Davis began writing letters to Echols in 1996 after she discovered his story through the documentary “Paradise Lost.” Davis and Echols wrote an account of the couple’s love story on death row, “Yours for Eternity.” Davis attended the lecture on Thursday.
During the second half of the lecture, Echols opened the floor to questions. Students, faculty, and members of the community asked questions covering topics ranging from his tattoos, to his relationship with Johnny Depp, to more specific questions about the case.
One question was whether he saw any similarities between his case and recent cases of racial profiling by law enforcement and in the justice system. Echols said that while he does see similarities, he believes that there is more to the issue than race.
“I honestly don’t believe it’s as much about race as it is about class. I think it’s about poor people. I think it’s always poor people, that get zoomed in on it. I think you just have more poor minorities than poor white trash. I think in a lot of ways it benefits the system to keep us focused on race instead of on class. … It keeps everybody looking at everybody else with distrust instead of realizing, ‘Oh they’re screwing all of us,’ and then banding together and doing something to actually change the system. I think what it comes down to is if you don’t have money, they can do whatever they want to you.”
Echols said that if his story prevented corruption and injustice in the future, then his time was well spent. After the lecture Echols signed copies of “Life After Death” and spoke with individual members of the audience for over an hour.