LITTLE ROCK — Actor Johnny Depp and former Arkansas death-row inmate Damien Echols were among the speakers at a rally Friday at the state Capitol calling on Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call off plans for a series of executions this month.
At the time of the rally, seven men were scheduled to be put to death over an 11-day span starting Monday. Later Friday, a Pulaski County circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the executions — an order the state will appeal — and the state Supreme Court issued an order staying the execution of Bruce Earl Ward, who had been set to die Monday.
Several hundred people turned out for the rally organized by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Afterward, the coalition delivered to the governor’s office more than 157,000 signatures of people across the country who signed an online petition calling on Hutchinson to halt the executions.
Depp came to the Capitol with Echols, whose case he long championed before Echols’ 2011 release from prison after 18 years under a plea deal. The deal allowed Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin to plead guilty to the 1993 killings of three boys in West Memphis but continue to maintain they are innocent.
“I’m proud to be here and I’m proud to stand in absolute solidarity and absolute support of my dear brother Damien, who at one time as you all know was sacrificed here into unbearable purgatory,” Depp said, adding that Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were “absolutely innocent of the crime.”
Depp said that if people are expected to abide by the letter of the law, then the state should too. He said Arkansas is planning to execute seven men with “drugs that don’t work” and that cause inmates to suffer “two and a half, three hours of utter agony and burning inside.”
Talking to reporters later, Depp said the inmates have a constitutional right to be put to death without unnecessary suffering.
“It should be lights out, you know what I mean? Nothing else,” he said.
Asked what he would like to say to the governor, Depp said, “How do you sleep?”
The inmates’ attorneys have argued in court that the state’s plan to sedate the men with the drug midazolam will cause them to experience severe pain. They allege the drug is not strong enough to prevent the inmates from feeling pain when they are then injected with vecuronium bromide to paralyze them and potassium chloride to stop their hearts.
The state has argued that midazolam will render the inmates unconscious and that they will feel nothing when the second and third drugs are administered. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of midazolam in executions in 2015.
The state is seeking to carry out the executions before its supply of midazolam expires at the end of this month.
Echols, who was making only his second return to Arkansas since his release, told the crowd, “I still have nightmares, I still have panic attacks about this place. I still sometimes have dreams that I’m trapped up in the bureaucratic labyrinth of corruption that passes for a justice system here.”
He said he did not want to return to the state.
“But when I heard about the conveyor belt of death that the politicians were trying to set in motion, I guess I knew that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t come back and try to do something,” Echols said.
He said he understands that the victims’ families are in pain, but he said the men slated to die are not just news stories to him, but people he lived with for almost 20 years.
“Strangely enough, it was these guys that they’re getting ready to execute, the ones that the local politicians would tell you are irredeemably evil, they can’t be saved and redeemed, these are the people who showed me more kindness, compassion and generosity than any of the good people that are trying to kill them ever did,” he said.
Echols also said Arkansas officials “don’t have any qualms with murdering people who have the intellect of a child or who belong in a mental health facility.”
Attorneys for Ward have said he is severely mentally ill.
State Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, told the ralliers, “It is up to us to … inform people about how capital punishment does not deter crime, about how capital punishment can be inhumane when you use the kind of drugs that we’re about to use.”
Other speakers included Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock and Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.
J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the governor, accepted the signatures delivered to the governor’s office and told the coalition members, “The governor is continuing to review the clemency applications. He hasn’t made any decisions yet.”