LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Justices on the Arkansas Supreme Court sharply questioned the state attorney general's office Thursday, asking what damage could be done if a judge examined evidence that allegedly exonerates an inmate sentenced to death for killing three Cub Scouts in 1993.
"What harm is there in allowing (inmate Damien Echols) to present all evidence?" Special Justice Jeff Priebe asked senior assistant attorney general David Raupp.
Raupp responded: "The harm is to the criminal justice system's interest in finality and the work that gets done in evaluating whether justice can be served."
Echols, 35, has been on Arkansas' death row since he was 20 years old, sentenced to death for the 1993 killings of 8-year-olds Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. He's maintained his innocence since his arrest and argues that he would be acquitted if retried on the charges.
The state Supreme Court upheld Echols' conviction in 1996, and Echols filed a new appeal after the court granted him permission to test DNA evidence from the crime scene, where the boys were found beaten, nude and hog-tied.
Thursday's oral arguments drew a crowd of more than 150 people who lined up outside the Supreme Court hours before the hearing began. One of the first in line was John Mark Byers, the stepfather of victim Christopher Byers.
He said that since Echols' trial in 1994, he's become "100 percent" convinced that the wrong man is behind bars.
"The evidence points to his innocence," Byers said.
A key part of Echols' appeal is analysis of DNA evidence that wasn't tested at the time of his trial. According to a DNA report filed with his appeal, none of the genetic material tested from the crime scene matched Echols or Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, the two other men convicted of murder in the case who are known as the West Memphis Three.
"I personally don't believe the three could have gone out there and opened a Twinkie and not leave any DNA," Byers said. "The facts don't fit the evidence."
The mother of victim Steve Branch has also said publicly that she thinks Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley are innocent. Michael Moore's parents could not be reached for comment Thursday, but they have repeatedly declined to talk about the case with reporters.
Justices asked several questions during the hourlong oral arguments, focusing primarily on what would happen if they sent the case back to a lower court for another hearing to determine whether Echols deserves a new trial. Such a move is short of the full retrial Echols has requested, but would be a small victory for his defense.
The state argues that Echols is merely trying to re-argue the case that he already lost before a jury.
"You can't bring in evidence that is just further reweighing of evidence," Raupp said.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued a statement after the proceedings, saying his office used "solid precedent" to argue against a new trial for Echols.
"Our justice system affords safeguards to protect the rights of all," McDaniel said. "That includes not only defendants, but also, in this case, the three innocent little boys who were viciously murdered in 1993."
Echols' attorney, Dennis Riordan, argued that it's critical for the Supreme Court to allow Echols to introduce evidence that could exonerate him.
"We believe that there will sometime have to be an order for a new trial," Riordan told the justices.
Echols has lost an appeal before Circuit Court Judge David Burnett, but if the Supreme Court orders another hearing, it will likely be before a new judge. Burnett, who also presided over Echols' murder trial in 1994, is running unopposed for the state Senate in November and cannot serve as both a senator and a judge.
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.