Ark. mom files suit to see slain son's possessions
MARION, Ark. – The mother of one of three Cub Scouts brutally murdered 19 years ago sued the West Memphis Police Department on Friday, demanding permission to see the possessions her son had with him when he died.
Pam Hicks, mother of Steve Branch, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in Crittenden County Court.
The suit asks a judge to allow her to see her son's belongings, including his clothes and possibly a bicycle he was riding the day he was killed. Ken Swindle, Hicks' attorney, says the lawsuit was filed after the department and the city attorney repeatedly denied her requests to see the evidence.
Three men, known as the West Memphis Three, were convicted in the 8-year-old boys' deaths, but were released from prison last year in a plea deal with prosecutors.
Hicks said the belongings are precious memories of her son. She has not asked for any property to be returned, only that she be allowed to view it, according to the lawsuit.
Swindle said the evidence should be released because there is no ongoing investigation and no active appeal.
"We don't know what all is there," Swindle said. "Ms. Hicks to this day does not know, for example, what Steve had in his pockets."
The case of the West Memphis Three has long haunted residents in the town, which is just across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn. The boys — Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steve Branch — were found naked and hogtied, and rumors of Satanism emerged during the initial investigation. Branch and Moore drowned in about 2 feet of water in a drainage ditch. Byers bled to death, and his genitals were mutilated and partially removed.
Three teens, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were convicted of killing the boys in 1994, partly based on a confession by Misskelley that he later recanted. Misskelley was sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years, Baldwin received life without parole and Echols was sentenced to death.
Now grown men, the West Memphis Three entered a plea deal last year that reduced their prison term to time served and let them still claim innocence.
In a letter denying Hicks' request, West Memphis city attorney David C. Peeples said that physical evidence is required to be "permanently impounded and securely retained" by law enforcement following any conviction for a violent offense.
Peeples' letter also said that the Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the physical evidence in this case.
A woman who answered the phone at the West Memphis city attorney's office Friday said Peeples was out and no one was available to comment.
West Memphis Police Chief Donald Oakes said the department denied Hicks' request to see the belongings because the department wants to preserve the evidence should it be needed for future examination.
Oakes said Hicks would need a court order for the department to hand over the evidence. In the past, he said, lab workers and investigators have been able to see sealed evidence under a judge's order.
"There is no nefarious motive, other than we want to protect this evidence," Oakes said. "I feel obligated to protect this evidence."
Hicks read a statement outside the courthouse Friday, alleging that many items are missing from the evidence file and some have shown up on the Internet.
"This has caused me a lot of worry and suffering," she said. "I worry that what is so precious to me is gone forever. I have asked the West Memphis police to please allow me to see Stevie's things. It is the right thing to do — to ease the pain that they have caused me, but they refuse to do so."
Hicks said she did not want to sue, but was frustrated at repeated failed attempts to see his belongings.
"I love my son," she said. "I miss him terribly, extremely, every day."
Mark Byers, the adoptive father of Christopher Byers, joined Hicks at the courthouse Friday, and said that while he has not filed a lawsuit, he also wants to see his son's belongings.