New DNA testing can be requested by ‘West Memphis 3’ case defendant Damien Echols, Arkansas Supreme Court rules | CNN (2024)

New DNA testing can be requested by ‘West Memphis 3’ case defendant Damien Echols, Arkansas Supreme Court rules | CNN (1)

Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., center, and Jason Baldwin sit at a table before a news conference at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

CNN

Nearly 30 years after three boys were found dead, the Arkansas Supreme Court has ruled new DNA testing of evidence from the crime scene can proceed, overturning a circuit court which had denied a request by one of the men convicted of the crime.

Damien Echols, one of the “West Memphis Three” teenagers convicted of the triple murder in 1994, initially petitioned for further DNA testing and was denied in 2022, based on the grounds he was no longer in custody at the time of his request.

“I thank the Arkansas Supreme Court for opening the DNA testing door that might finally reveal the truth about this case,” Echols told CNN in a statement through his lawyer, Stephen Braga.

Braga, who leads Echols’ defense team, said their next step will be trying to reach an agreement with the prosecutor and “get this testing done in the most expeditious and reliable manner possible.”

Applying the law

The 4-3 Supreme Court decision ruled Echols’ request was legal within the Arkansas Code Annotated Act 1780, according to court documents. Under the state law passed in 2001, a person convicted of a crime can request “forensic DNA testing, or other tests that may become available through advances in technology, to demonstrate the person’s actual innocence,” the court ruling stated.

“Mr. Echols and I are quite happy with the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling because it opens up the possibility that key evidence in the case can now be tested with the most advanced technology possible,” Braga told CNN. “For Mr. Echols, this is the next step on his journey to do everything possible to identify who killed these three little boys, since he knows that he did not.”

At trial, prosecutors argued Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. killed 8-year-old Cub Scouts Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore in West Memphis, Arkansas, as part of a satanic ritual, with Echols as the ringleader. The children’s bodies were found left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.

Themen were released in 2011, after serving 18 years in prison, when they signed Alford pleas, in which they maintained their innocence but acknowledged prosecutors had sufficient evidence to convict them.

In 2022, Echols’ attorneys filed the petition for new DNA testing, saying it “might serve to identify the killer(s)” and bring justice to the case. Echols’ petition asked the judge to approve testing with what is known as the M-Vac wet vacuum system, a technologically advanced method not available when the evidence was previously tested. The petition was denied.

pmt damien echols life after prison lorri davis_00004210 Facebook Related article Decades without daylight: ‘West Memphis Three’ describe life in prison

“No one knows, of course, whether additional testing of the ligatures (shoelaces) with the new M-Vac DNA collection technology will lead to the recovery of new DNA samples for testing or not,” the 2022 petition argued. “But one thing for certain is that such evidence will definitely not be found if testing with this new technology is not done.”

The Arkansas Supreme Court reversed and remanded the circuit judge’s ruling, which stated Echols was not entitled to request additional testing because he was no longer in custody. The Supreme Court held the circuit court had “erroneously interpreted” Act 1780.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Barbara Webb said the court’s ruling “obliterates any sense of finality in our criminal justice system.”

“Their interpretation of Act 1780 means anyone who has ever been convicted of a crime — whether or not they be in State custody — can seek DNA or other scientific testing even if such testing would not prove that individual’s innocence,” Webb said.

Attorney General Tim Griffin echoed Judge Webb’s concern.

“We are disappointed by the decision, which undermines finality in long-closed criminal cases and will result in unserious filings,” Griffin said in a statement. “I hope the legislature will address the issue expeditiously.”

New DNA testing can be requested by ‘West Memphis 3’ case defendant Damien Echols, Arkansas Supreme Court rules | CNN (3)

Yearbook photos of Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore presented as state's evidence.

No prior DNA links to the suspects

DNA tested between December 2005 and September 2007from a shoelace used to bind Moore and a hair recovered from a tree stump near where the bodies were found, failed to link the men to the crime. The state Supreme Court ruled in November 2010 all three could present new evidence to the trial court in an effort to clear them, something preempted by the plea deals.

The hair found in the shoelace was consistent with Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while hair found on the tree stump was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs, according to the documents. Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect and he maintains he had nothing to do with the murders.

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, DEC 31, AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2011, file photo, Damien Echols, left, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., center, and Jason Baldwin sit at a table before a news conference at the Craighead County Court House in Jonesboro, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File) Danny Johnston/AP Related article Judge rejects West Memphis Three member’s request for new DNA testing

Three witnesses who resided next to one of the victims filed affidavits in October 2009 with the Arkansas Supreme Court saying they saw the second-graders with Terry Hobbs the night before the bodies were found by police.

The statement from the witnesses contradicted Hobbs’ statements to police and in court he never saw his stepson, Steve, on the day of the murder.

Prosecutors argued at trial, punctures and cut marks on the victims showed the crimes were part of a satanic ritual. After the three were convicted, some forensic examiners argued the marks were from animal bites.

The prosecution relied on the confession of Misskelley, a 17-year-old with learning disabilities and an IQ of 70. He confessed after an unrecorded, three-hour interrogation by police without his parents or an attorney present. Misskelley, who was tried separately, later recanted his confession.

Echols and Baldwin said at the time they were targeted for being different from the rest of their peers in the small town where they lived. They read different books, wore different clothes and had different haircuts.

“The evidence against us was our personal preferences in music,” Baldwinsaid. “I remember at one point during the trial, they lifted up a record, a Blue Oyster Cult record, and I think (prosecutor) John Fogleman said this was found in Damien’s girlfriend’s mother’s house.”

Critics of the case against the men argued no direct evidence tied them to the killings, and a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused the boys’ wounds.

The killings were the subject of the “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy, which raised questions about the evidence in the case. The films, released in 1996, 2004 and 2011, drew attention from musicians including Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits and Henry Rollins, who pushed for a review of the case. The third film was nominated for an Academy Award.

CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.

New DNA testing can be requested by ‘West Memphis 3’ case defendant Damien Echols, Arkansas Supreme Court rules | CNN (2024)
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