Police department ordered to comply with FOIA request in West Memphis Three case
A man who claims he was wrongfully convicted in the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis may soon learn what happened to the evidence in his case that police and prosecutors claim was lost or destroyed.
The West Memphis Police Department has been served with a summons by the Crittenden County Circuit Court and the state of Arkansas ordering the department to respond to a Freedom of Information request demanding answers as to what happened to case evidence. The department has 30 days to respond to a lawsuit filed by Damien Echols’ attorney, Patrick Benca, according to Echols' public relations firm, Soury Communications.
Echols, who served 18 years on death row in Arkansas for a crime he claims that he and his co-defendants, Jason Baldwin or Jesse Misskelley Jr., didn’t commit, has learned that evidence that was preserved at the police department has either been destroyed, is missing, or both.
Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were convicted in 1994 of the slayings of 8-year olds Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. The three boys were riding bikes in their West Memphis neighborhood on May 5, 1993 when they vanished.
Their bodies were found in a drainage ditch a day later. Echols and his cohorts were arrested a month later and prosecutors claimed the boys were killed in an occult ceremony. After the convictions, serious questions about the veracity of the case against the three defendants emerged.
On Aug. 19, 2011, the three were released from prison after agreeing to an Alford Plea. They were placed on probation for 10 years, meaning all evidence in their case had to be kept until Aug. 19, 2021.
In an effort to find out what happened to evidence that could potentially contain exculpatory forensics, Benca submitted an FOIA request on July 6 seeking all records related to the missing evidence.
Over the past year, Echols and his attorneys have tried on numerous occasions to contact the West Memphis Police Department as well as prosecutor, now judge, Scott Ellington to make arrangements to transfer the forensic evidence to a special laboratory for M-Vac testing. Echols said he has received no response.
Benca had reached out to acting Prosecuting Attorney Keith Chrestman seeking to review the evidence when he learned that after the plea in 2011, some of the evidence was missing and some evidence ended up in a building that burned down. He agreed at first to review the remaining evidence with Benca, but now, according to news reports, Chrestman says “he told Echols’ attorneys that if they wanted that evidence tested they would have to seek a court order.”
“The West Memphis PD agreed to facilitate the testing of some of the evidence, but then the West Memphis police as well as Prosecutor Ellington stopped communicating with us over the past year. We have now learned that much of the evidence has been lost, destroyed or both. We are deeply concerned about the sequence of events. Was the evidence lost after we requested advanced DNA testing? What evidence is left? Where does that evidence reside now? Bottom line is that we want to submit the remaining evidence for advanced DNA testing to hopefully obtain new DNA results that can help fully exonerate the three men,” attorney Stephen Braga said.
In May 2020, Echols, his attorney Braga and Lonnie Soury contacted Ellington who agreed to release evidence in the case for further DNA testing. In a series of email correspondence, Ellington contacted Kermit Channel at the Arkansas Crime Lab who informed Ellington that the trial evidence was located at the West Memphis Police Department. Ellington then contacted Assistant Police Chief Langston and Major Stacey Allen who also agreed to provide the evidence for DNA testing.
Filmmaker Bob Ruff, who had recently completed a docuseries on the West Memphis 3 case, had recommended using the new M-Vac DNA system on the existing evidence to hopefully reveal the DNA of the murderer. Testing had previously revealed that DNA linked to Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered children, was found in the ligatures on the sneaker of one of the boys. A recent FBI study found that the amount of DNA recovered with the M-Vac system was several‐fold greater. The vacuum system yielded an average of 12 times more nDNA and 17x greater mtDNA than traditional testing methods.
“We have been literally begging the state of Arkansas to allow us to do further DNA testing to clear our names for over a year. We were lied to repeatedly, and now we learn that much of the evidence has been destroyed or lost,” Echols said.