New trial sought for Damien Echols | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New trial sought for Damien Echols

Posted By on Thu, Mar 26, 2009 at 12:55 PM

The stepped-up legal and investigative effort on behalf of those convicted in the West Memphis Three case continues. A motion was filed today for a new trial for Damien Echols, sentenced to die in the slayings of three young boys. The motion cities DNA evidence (or, rather, absence of any pointing toward guilt) and alleged juror misconduct. These issues have been discussed previously and dismissed by the state.

Read all about it on the jump.


New DNA and Forensic Evidence and Juror Misconduct Cited in Plea to Overturn Wrongful Conviction
Prominent Arkansas Attorney Files Sworn Affidavit Stating Jury Foreman Urged Other Jurors to Convict Based Upon False Confession
 (Little Rock AR, March 26, 2009) – DNA testing and other powerful forensic evidence - combined with a sworn affidavit that the original jury foreman engaged in blatant misconduct that contributed to the jury’s decision - proves that Damien Echols was wrongfully convicted of three notorious 1993 murders in West Memphis, Arkansas, according to legal papers filed today in the Arkansas Supreme Court asking to overrule a lower court decision and grant Damien Echols a new trial.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in 1994 for crimes they did not commit, and have served 15 years in prison.  There was no credible physical evidence, eyewitness testimony or motive tying the three local teens to the murders.  Damien Echols was sentenced to death and Jason Baldwin to life imprisonment at their joint trial.  Misskelley was tried separately and sentenced to life in prison.
Case History
Three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a drainage ditch in Robin Hood Hills, a local wooded area near their homes in West Memphis, on May 6, 1993.  Less than a month later, 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley “confessed” to the crime and claimed that Echols and Jason Baldwin sexually abused and beat the victims.  Misskelley, a mentally handicapped boy with an IQ of 72, believed he would get a reward for confessing; many of the details of his confession (including the time of day the crimes were committed and the claim of sexual abuse) did not match the facts of the crime.  Misskelley was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in February 1994.  Baldwin and Echols were tried together after Misskelley’s trial, and were convicted of three counts of first-degree murder.  The following day, Echols was sentenced to die, and he has been on death row ever since.
At the time of Damien Echols’s trial, there was no scientific evidence to support the prosecution’s case and a poisonous atmosphere during trial contributed to his wrongful conviction.  The prosecution alleged that Echols and two other teenagers committed the crimes as part of a satanic ritual and provided testimony from a faux “expert” whose words created a Salem witch trial atmosphere.

Echols was 18 years old and penniless at the time of his trial, and a court-appointed attorney representing him failed to challenge a pattern of inaccurate and inflammatory statements made by prosecutors and others during the trial, failed to engage forensic experts who could have refuted the testimony that was used to convict Echols, and entered into a contract with documentary filmmakers prior to the trial which improperly influenced legal decisions in the defense.
Crime Scene DNA Does Not Match Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley
Dozens of pieces of evidence found at the crime scene conclusively show that no DNA from the murders matches Echols or the other two men.  DNA testing, however, links Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered children, to the crime scene, and other evidence has emerged implicating him in the crimes. [Editor's note: Hobbs has denied such charges in the past.]
A hair found in the knot used to bind the victims matches Terry Hobbs.  Tests also show foreign DNA – from someone other than Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley – on two of the victims.  DNA matches a hair at the murder scene to another man who was with Hobbs on the day of the crimes.  This places Hobbs at the scene of the crime, since it refutes any theory that the Hobbs hair was there before the crime.  DNA testing linking Hobbs to the crime scene was not available at the time of the trial.
In addition, scientific evidence from the nation’s leading forensics experts demonstrates that most of the wounds on the victims were caused by animals at the crime scene, after their deaths – not by knives used by the perpetrators, as the prosecution claimed and was the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case.  Moreover, evidence presented that a knife recovered from a lake near one defendant’s home caused the wounds was completely discredited by the pathologists.  As well, the testimony of a jailhouse informant and a faux “expert” who testified that the knife wounds were part of a satanic ritual was deemed incredulous by these forensic scientists.
Jury Foreman Engaged in Shocking and Illegal Activity During Trial
Echols’s brief also informs the Supreme Court that a prominent Arkansas attorney who is a former prosecutor and state official filed a sworn affidavit with the trial court detailing the contents of improper conversations that the jury foreman held with the attorney while the original trial was in progress, clearly violating the law and the rights of Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin to a fair and impartial trial.  In those conversations, the jury foreman indicates that he had prejudged Echols’s guilt and was trying to convince other jurors to convict based upon news reports of the false confession of Jessie Misskelley, which was barred from admission at the Echols-Baldwin trial.
During one conversation, the jury foreman told the attorney that the prosecution had presented a weak case, and that the prosecution had better present something powerful the next day (the end of the prosecution’s case) or it would be up to him to secure a conviction.

The Arkansas Attorney General has opposed placing the affidavit, originally filed in May 2008 in the Circuit Court that tried the three defendants, in the record before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Lower Court Decision Denying New Trial Based Upon DNA Law is Flawed and Narrows  Legislation’s Intent
In 2001, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing.  The law passed partly as a result of widespread doubts about the convictions of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin.  The lower court’s decision denying Damien Echols a new trial based upon its narrow interpretation of Arkansas’ new scientific evidence statute (DNA law) was flawed and limits the possibility of any wrongfully convicted defendant of obtaining justice using DNA results.  In denying Echols a new trial, the state essentially declares that unless the new DNA establishes absolute exoneration it is not relevant.  The judge’s decision would not grant relief, “no matter how scientifically conclusive that a petitioner is not the source of relevant DNA, if not legally conclusive in favor of innocence.”
In fact, according to the Arkansas law (Ark.Code 16-112-201,et seq.) “A person is entitled to a new trial insofar as he can demonstrate that the DNA test results, when considered with all other evidence in the case, regardless of whether the evidence was introduced at trial, establish by compelling evidence that a new trial would result in an acquittal.”
Dennis Riordan and Don Horgan, Echols’s lead counsel, assert in their brief before the Supreme Court that “the evidentiary showing made by petitioner completely undermines the state’s evidence and convincingly points in the direction of alternative suspects.  Every reasonable juror hearing Echols’s new evidence would doubt his guilt; indeed, any such juror could be confident of his innocence.  Petitioner has more than satisfied the standard for relief set forth in Arkansas’ new scientific evidence statutes.”
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