The new year has breathed fresh life into the cases of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., collectively known as the West Memphis Three. The three men were convicted in 1994 for the killing of three West Memphis children, though there has been persistent doubt about their guilt dating back to the original trial. The campaign to prove their innocence scored a serious victory last November when the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that a lower court must hold an evidentiary hearing to examine whether new DNA evidence which potentially exonerates the West Memphis Three, as well as accusations of jury misconduct in their original trials, sufficiently calls into question their sentences such that a new trial must be held.
January 4th marked the beginning of the preparation for the evidentiary hearing. Circuit Court Judge David Laser took meetings with attorneys for both sides, and set February 18th as a deadline for the submission of pre-hearing briefs. Judge Laser has replaced David Burnett as the appeals judge, which itself represents a positive development as Burnett had repeatedly upheld the original verdict. Judge Laser has made it clear that this case represents a top priority, and he stated plans to "get this done as soon as possible."
Among the issues discussed last week were concerns about scheduling the hearing in light of outstanding Rule 37 appeals for Mr. Misskelley and Mr. Baldwin which contest the adequacy of their representation at the original trial. Judge Laser agreed with arguments made by Mr. Echols attorney who said that while the Rule 37 appeals are certainly important, they cannot delay the evidentiary hearing for Echols as he is the only prisoner facing the death penalty. There was also discussion of new standards for DNA testing which included a commitment to greater transparency in the process. This point is of great significance in the case as the District Attorney's office had previously conducted secret tests when their original screenings of crime scene material appeared to clear Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley. Judge Laser has also issued a gag order surrounding the case, in part to help create a new jury pool in the case of a retrial.
These developments represent significant gains for the West Memphis Three, who have persistently professed their innocence. We should all be thankful that it finally seems as though the courts will give them a real chance to prove it.
Posted in Blog, Innocence
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Comment by Doug Crosby, Feb 13th, 2011 4:45am
It is almost impossible to believe that this entire process has taken so long. We hear about "justice" as practiced in the southern states. This case is textbook. I hope the cost of the defense is what determines its outcome! Doesn't the State provide legal assistance in such instances?
Comment by Lonnie Soury, Jan 13th, 2011 6:16am
Thanks for an excellent description of the case and new developments. But to put on an adequate defense/hearing takes hundreds of thousands of dollars. New DNA testing will be required, new expert witnesses, and a continued investigation into the crime and the innocence of the WM3. Any and all support is welcome at www.freewestmemphis3.org and wm3.org
Lonnie Soury, Arkansas Take Action