Published September 29, 2010
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A lawyer for one of the three men convicted of killing three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in West Memphis told the Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday that new scientific evidence in the case merits reopening his client's case.
Damien Echols has maintained his innocence since his arrest in the 1993 killings. Attorney Dennis Riordan told the court that DNA testing conducted after Echols' conviction did not place Echols at the scene and that other scientific evaluation of evidence contradicts statements made by one of the three men during a confession.
Riordan asked the court to send the case back to circuit court for an evidentiary hearing so that the trial judge can sort out the new evidence.
If the hearing is conducted, Riordan said the judge would have to take the next step and order a new trial.
"It is in the interest of the state and Mr. Echols that we get to that point as soon as possible," Riordan said.
The Legislature passed a law allowing DNA testing in cases when the technology wasn't available in the original trial, Assistant Attorney General David Raupp argued the evidence has to prove innocence, not just raise questions.
"It is a matter of legislative grace," Raupp said. "The measure of it should be a very high bar."
Raupp said Echols' appeal should be limited to arguments over DNA evidence, without considering other evidence.
Echols was convicted with two other defendants, who have become known as the "West Memphis Three" for the 1993 murders of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. The boys were found beaten, nude and hog-tied in a wooded area.
The state Supreme Court upheld Echols' conviction in 1996, finding there was sufficient evidence to prove he killed the boys. Echols filed a new appeal after the court granted him permission for the DNA testing.
According to a report filed with the court, there was no DNA from Echols or the two other men convicted of murder found at the crime scene.
Echols raised a number of points in his new appeal, including an argument that during deliberations, jurors considered information that was not introduced as evidence at trial. His attorneys have filed sealed affidavits that they say show the jury considered the confession of Jessie Misskelley, who implicated himself, Echols and Jason Baldwin in the murders.
Riordan told the court that he has "devastating forensic evidence" that would prove Misskelly's description of a knife wound was untrue.
Misskelley's trial was severed from Baldwin's and Echols' because Misskelley refused to testify against his friends. That confession couldn't be introduced at the other trials because a defendant has the right to confront his accuser, and Misskelley refused to take the stand.
Riordan said Misskelley's statement should be evaluated at an evidentiary hearing so he can argue the confession was false.
Echols' attorneys say they have affidavits that show the jury used the confession as a reason to convict Echols and Baldwin when they were deliberating guilt or innocence.
If the high court grants a new trial for Echols, it would likely open the door for new proceedings for Baldwin and Misskelley, who are both serving life sentences.
The case has drawn interest far beyond Arkansas. Last month, a rally in Little Rock to support Echols' legal fund featured Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, actor Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and drew more than 2,000 people.
(This version corrects the spelling of Raupp's name.)