Judge denies advanced DNA testing in West Memphis 3 case
Crittenden County Circuit Court Judge Tonya Alexander on Thursday denied a petition by Damien Echols to have advanced DNA testing done on ligatures that were recovered in the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis.
Echols, along with two co-defendants, pleaded to Alford or no-contest pleas on Aug. 19, 2011, for the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore. The three men, often referred to as The West Memphis 3, have steadfastly maintained their innocence in a case that has drawn worldwide attention for decades.
Echols is expected to appeal the ruling. He told Talk Business & Politics moments prior to the court hearing that today was the first time he can remember setting foot in West Memphis since he was arrested in June 1993.
Alexander told Echols that since he was not in prison anymore he could not seek relief in the form of DNA testing. Echols’ defense team member Lonnie Soury said the ruling was an incorrect interpretation of the law. There are consequences that a wrongful conviction brings to a defendant that go beyond incarceration, and many have sought relief even after being released from prison, he added.
“We are extremely disappointed in the judge’s decision which was based upon a narrow interpretation of the law and one that failed to allow justice to be served. All we asked is for the right to seek to identify the DNA of the real killer(s). We will certainly appeal the decision and are confident that the Arkansas Supreme Court will see it differently. The sad fact is that those responsible for the murders of three children in 1993 will breathe a sigh of relief now that Arkansas is once again in their corner,” Soury said.
According to Arkansas’ DNA statute, “Except when direct appeal is available, a person convicted of a crime may make a motion for the performance of . . . DNA testing, or other tests which may become available through advances in technology to demonstrate the person’s actual innocence.”
Baldwin attended the hearing, but Misskelley did not. Baldwin told Talk Business & Politics before it started that he was in good spirits, and he hoped for a resolution in the case. His goal is to find the person or persons responsible for the murders and to clear his name, he said.
“Well, here we go,” he said as he matriculated his way toward the courthouse doors.
Security was tight at the district courthouse in West Memphis. Dozens of officers in full gear surrounded the complex and numerous barriers were put into place. State troopers roved the side streets near the complex.
A couple of hundred people, mostly supporters of the West Memphis 3, stood in line for hours. Only 20 or so people were allowed in the courtroom. The rest were told that they could only stand on the sidewalk next to the road and were not allowed to sit in their cars with the air conditioning on. Temperatures soared into the mid-90s, and several were visibly and verbally upset by the treatment by law enforcement.
Echols asked prosecutors to test the ligatures two years ago, and at first the state seemed ready to allow the testing to move forward. But after Prosecutor Scott Ellington was elected to a judge post, newly appointed Prosecuting Attorney Keith Crestman told Talk Business & Politics in April 2021 he would seek a judge’s order to destroy the evidence.
Soon after, prosecutors claimed the evidence had been lost or destroyed in a fire, but these claims proved untrue when in December 2021 the evidence was found intact inside the West Memphis Police Department’s evidence locker room. Why it was claimed that the evidence was destroyed or lost has never been explained.
Repeated attempts by Talk Business & Politics to get comment from Crestman have gone unanswered.
Branch, Byers, and Moore were riding their bikes in their neighborhood on May 5, 1993, when they vanished. Their nude, bound bodies were found a day later in a drainage ditch that bifurcated a wooded area near the neighborhood known as Robin Hood Hills.
A month later, the three defendants were arrested and charged. Prosecutors claimed the murders were part of a Satanic or occult ceremony. Misskelley gave a series of error-riddled confessions that led to the arrests, although he later recanted and claimed he was coerced.
Echols was sentenced to death and the other two received life sentences in 1994 even though no forensic evidence tied them to the crime. Hairs from the crime scene were DNA tested in 2005 and in 2007.
None of the hairs tested were a match for Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley.
One hair found in the ligature that bound more was a genetic match for Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, and another hair found was a partial match to his alibi witness, David Jacoby. Hobbs has denied involvement in the crime as has Jacoby.
Jacoby has also signed a sworn affidavit stating he was not with Hobbs when the boys vanished. Hobbs told Talk Business & Politics several months ago that he didn’t support DNA testing the ligatures and that he hoped a judge would order the evidence destroyed in the case. His reasoning was that he was tired of dealing with the “WM3 and their supporters.”
Echols wants to use the M-Vac testing system. Swabbing with a cotton tip has been the gold standard for collecting DNA in criminal cases for many years, according to the FBI. The agency conducted an extensive research probe into M-Vac testing and found in 2020 that it’s on average 12 times more accurate than swabbing and it recommends using the method if it’s available.
M-Vac uses a wet vacuum system. An item is ‘vacuumed” and the material collected is placed into a solution. The solution is removed and all the material, including any DNA, is collected by a filter that is then transferred to a lab for analysis.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys settled on Alford plea agreements after it became clear a new judge in the case was set to order new trials almost 11 years ago.
Ellington said at the time he would not have been able to bring these charges to court if new trials had been ordered. He said the evidence had grown “stale” and that several key witnesses in the original trials had now changed their stories and several admitted they had told lies on the witness stand.
Even after his release in 2011, Echols said it took him years to recover from the physical and emotional trauma of being on Arkansas’ Death Row. His memories of the time are vague, and it has taken him years to cope, he said.
He said it was surreal standing in the town of his birth, and it is also the place where his freedom was taken. The 47-year-old sported a long beard and tinted glasses while waiting for the hearing to begin. Despite his decades long struggle against the Arkansas judicial system, he said he felt good about their chances of getting the advanced DNA testing done.
“I am optimistic. I really am,” he said.
A timetable for filing the appeal was not released.
Copy for this story was written by George Jared who has been reporting on legal developments in this case for about two decades. He was interviewed by KUAR's Michael Hibblen after the judge issued her opinion.