The Arkansas Supreme Court will hold a hearing Thursday to weigh a new trial for one of three men who say they were wrongfully convicted of a 1993 triple murder.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley – known as the West Memphis Three — were convicted in 1994 of killing three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin received life without parole and Misskelley was sentenced to 40 years.
The men and their attorneys have developed strong evidence of their innocence since the conviction, but have been unable to overturn the convictions on appeal. Echols is now seeking a new trial based on DNA evidence showing that someone else committed the crime. Post-conviction DNA testing on crime scene evidence in the case excluded the defendants and Echols is seeking more advanced tests not possible before their 1994 trial.
An attorney for Echols told the Arkansas Times that the West Memphis Three case will have statewide implications and that if the court accepts the attorney general’s interpretation of Arkansas’ DNA statute it could prevent anyone from ever being granted a new trial based on DNA evidence. Arkansas passed a law in 2001 granting post-conviction access to DNA testing for people who claimed innocence. Post-conviction DNA testing on crime scene evidence in the West Memphis Three case did not match the defendants. But Attorney General Dustin McDaniel wants to limit defendants to evidence that was presented during their first trial.
“Such a request for relief from a criminal judgment without a claim of error in the underlying proceedings,” the attorney general wrote in a circuit court brief, “is a request for clemency, vested in the Governor… The General Assembly cannot delegate this power to the courts without infringing on the governor’s powers.”
Echols’ attorney Dennis Riordan says the Attorney General is “proposing the demise of the DNA statute.”
“What they say is if you think about it, DNA alone can never ever prove somebody innocent. They say that doesn’t prove someone’s innocence because maybe he was standing next to the guy that actually did it and maybe he’s an accomplice. So, all DNA testing can prove is that it wasn’t your DNA, it doesn’t mean you weren’t in on the crime. So alone it can never be enough.”
Watch a trailer of “Paradise Lost” – a documentary film about the case – below.