WM 3 -- UPDATE II | Arkansas Blog

WM 3 -- UPDATE II

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There's been chatter all day about developments in the West Memphis Three case this week in an expected federal court filing and now word has begun spreading. As we had indicated long ago, thanks to Mara Leveritt's continued reporting, DNA studies of evidence taken from the bodies of victims in the case have turned up no DNA from the three youths sentenced to death for the slaying of three West Memphis children. No DNA could be found in some cases.

Unless I miss my guess, the prosecutor will be unimpressed by this when he files a response to the finding.

The findings are to be discussed by attorneys and experts for the defense at a session from 10 a.m. to noon Thursday morning at the UALR Law School's Friday courtroom.  One of the three convicted, Damien Echols, faces death in what was a wholly -- and thinly at that -- circumstantial case. Authorities never seriously pursued angles that led to others with associations with the boys.

UPDATE: On the jump is a news release being distributed by the defense team.

And here is a NY Times summary of the development. The PR strategy clearly is taking a national approach.

A critical finding -- a hair with the DNA of one of the murdered children's stepfather -- was reported by us in July. A new wrinkle is that the hair -- which could have been innocently present the stepfather said -- was found in a knot tying another one of the dead children.

NEWS RELEASE

(LITTLE ROCK, AR; October 29, 2007) – Advanced DNA testing and other strong scientific evidence – combined with additional evidence from several different witnesses and experts – proves that Damien Echols was wrongfully convicted of murdering three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993, according to legal papers filed today in federal court.

The 200 page motion filed today by attorneys for Echols, who has been on death row in Arkansas for more than a decade, says that new evidence proves Echols' innocence – and implicates Terry Hobbs, the step-father of one of the victims. [Editor's note: The Arkansas Times explored this in an earlier story and Hobbs denies responsibility.]

The evidence includes DNA testing on dozens of pieces of evidence; under the prosecution theory for how the crime was committed, it would be nearly impossible for at least one perpetrator's DNA not to match crime scene evidence. No biological evidence from the crime scene matches Echols or the other two men convicted of the crime, according to the DNA test results included in today's filing. DNA testing on multiple pieces of evidence does, however, link Terry Hobbs to the crime scene – and other evidence has emerged implicating him in the crimes.

"In recent months, we have uncovered powerful scientific evidence that Damien Echols is, in fact, innocent. The motion we filed today with the federal court that is empowered to overturn this conviction lays out overwhelming and irrefutable scientific evidence that Damien Echols is innocent," said Dennis Riordan, Echols' lead attorney. "By itself, any single piece of evidence we present in this filing could overturn Damien Echols' conviction – and, combined, all of this evidence makes clear that this was a grave miscarriage of justice that must be corrected."

The evidence in today's filing includes:

DNA test results that fail to link Echols or the other defendants to the crime scene; in light of the prosecution claim that Echols sodomized the victims, the lack of his DNA at the crime scene is exculpatory itself.

DNA test results showing that a hair found in the ligature of one of the victims matches Terry Hobbs, the step-father of another one of the victims.

DNA test results showing foreign DNA – from someone other than Echols or the two other men who were convicted – on the penises of two of the victims.

DNA test results matching a hair at the crime scene to a man who was with Terry 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 (found in the ligature of one of the victims) was there before the crime.

Scientific analysis from some of the nation's leading forensics experts, stating that wounds on the victims' bodies were caused by animals at the crime scene – not by knives used by the perpetrators, as the prosecution claimed. These wounds were the centerpiece of the prosecution's case, and evidence was presented that a knife recovered from a lake near one defendant's home caused the wounds. The conclusive expert analysis showing that animals caused the wounds after the victims died also completely undercuts the testimony of a jailhouse informant (who testified about Echols using a knife to cause the wounds) and a discredited "expert" who testified that the knife wounds were part of a Satanic ritual.

Sworn affidavits outlining new evidence uncovered by Pam Hobbs (the ex-wife of Terry Hobbs) who found a knife in Terry Hobbs' drawer that her son (one of the victims) had carried with him at all times. After her son was killed, the knife was not among his personal effects that police gave to the Hobbs families, and Pam Hobbs always assumed that her son's murderer had taken it during the crime.

New information implicating Terry Hobbs – including his own statements to police in recent interviews where he acknowledged that several of his relatives suspect him in the crime. The filing also includes a chronology of Hobbs' activities on the night of the crimes, when he washed his clothes for no reason other than to hide evidence from the crimes.

A sworn affidavit that refutes hearsay evidence from Echols' trial. The mother of one of two girls who testified that they overheard Echols admit to the crime at a softball game now says that Echols' statement was not serious and that neither she nor her daughter believes he committed the crime.

Today's filing amends an earlier filing in the case, which outlined prosecutorial misconduct and juror misconduct in Echols' trial.

The motion filed today in federal court says that the advanced DNA testing linking Hobbs to the crime scene was not available at the time of Echols' trial. The filing notes that Echols was 18 years old and penniless at the time of his trial, and a court-appointed attorney represented him. That attorney failed to challenge a pattern of inaccurate and inflammatory statements made by prosecutors and others during the trial, and also failed to engage forensic experts who could have refuted the testimony that was used to convict Echols, today's filing says.

Today's court filing also notes the poisonous atmosphere during Echols' trial that contributed to his wrongful conviction – citing the lead prosecutor himself, who said at the time that the community's outrage, the national interest and the media coverage created a "shark feeding atmosphere" during the trial. The prosecution alleged that Echols and two other teenagers committed the crimes as part of a Satanic ritual.

"At the time of Damien Echols' trial, there was no scientific evidence to support the prosecution's case. With today's court filing, science is finally having its day in this case – and it shows that Damien is innocent," Riordan said. "The science backs up what witnesses and people involved with the trial now say uniformly: that Damien Echols did not commit these horrible crimes. The scientific evidence and witness affidavits we filed today flatly refute every supposed piece of evidence and every innuendo that the prosecution used to convict Damien."

In February 1994, Echols was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to die. Three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a drainage ditch in Robin Hood Hills, a local wooded area near their homes, on May 6, 1993. Less than a month later, 17-year-old Jesse Misskelley "confessed" to the crime and claimed that Echols and Jason Baldwin sexually abused and beat the victims. Miskelley, 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) did not match the facts of the crime. Misskelley was tried and convicted of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder in February 1994. Baldwin and Echols were tried together after Misskelley's trial, and they were convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in February 1994. The following day, Echols was sentenced to die, and he has been on death row ever since. Since 1995, Echols has filed a series of appeals on several grounds.

In 2001, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law granting post-conviction access to DNA testing. The law passed largely as a result of widespread doubts about the convictions of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin. Within months of the DNA testing law taking effect, Echols filed a motion seeking DNA testing in the case. In 2004 and again in 2005, a state court ordered DNA testing to be conducted in the case, and a range of DNA testing has been conducted over the last two years."

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