David Mitchell, writing in the Arkansas Law Review, argues that a circuit judge used too narrow a standard for considering post-conviction relief based on new evidence in the West Memphis Three murder case. Mitchell concludes that a new trial was warranted. Let's hope the state Supreme Court reads the Arkansas Law Review.
A news release summarizes:
The Arkansas Law Review, a publication of the University of Arkansas School of Law in cooperation with the Arkansas Bar Association, has published a lengthy and scholarly article reviewing the legal issues surrounding the innocence claims of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.
New evidence in the case revealed that while no DNA of the convicted young men was found at the crime scene, DNA from Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Stevie Branch, was found in the ligature binding the hands and feet of one of the other children. In addition, some of the country’s leading forensic pathologists have concluded that most of the wounds found on the bodies were, in fact, the result of post mortem animal bites, and not knife wounds, a belief upon which the prosecution based its case.
The well-researched article by David S. Mitchell, Jr., Lock ’Em Up and Throw Away the Key: The “West Memphis Three” and Arkansas’s Statute for Post-Conviction Relief Based on New Scientific Evidence (Volume 62, number 3), reviews the decision by Craighead County Circuit Judge David Burnett, who denied the West Memphis 3’s request for a new trial based upon new DNA and other evidence. In September 2008, Judge Burnett summarily denied Echols’s, Baldwin’s and Misskelley’s respective motions without granting a hearing.
According to the Law Review article, the circuit court employed a very narrow interpretation of the post-conviction relief (DNA) statute (section 16-112-208-(b) (e) to deny Damien Echols and the West Memphis 3 a new trial.
“A close examination of the legal and factual issues presented by Echols’s motion for a new trial reveals the circuit court’s failures on each level, particularly the way the circuit court’s interpretation of the statute eviscerated its purpose.”
“After evaluating the legal arguments presented by the State and Echols on each of these issues, this comment reaches the conclusion that the trial court erred in denying Echols’s motion for a new trial.”
Echols’s case meets the standards set forth in the Arkansas statute as well as the intention of the legislature when the statute was passed in 2001. “The court may then grant a motion for a new trial or resentencing if the DNA test results, when considered with all evidence in the case regardless of whether the evidence was introduced at trial, would establish by compelling evidence that a new trial would result in acquittal. The new evidence is sufficient to establish that any reasonable juror would have reasonable doubt as to Echols’s guilt…”
He concluded, “the circuit court failed in its interpretation of Arkansas’s post-conviction relief statute…it also failed to meet the Arkansas Legislature’s goal of accounting for the ability of new technology to accomplish the mission of criminal law –to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent.”
The circuit court reasoned that the legislative history of the statute indicated Echols’s testing results were “inconclusive” and required that the motion be denied under section 208 (b). Accordingly, the court gave great significance to the fact that the DNA testing was ordered under a prior version of the statute that allowed that DNA tests could be conducted when the evidence had the “scientific potential” to be materially relevant to the claim of relief. The 2005 statute had a stricter standard that allows only for testing when the results could raise a reasonable probability that the person did not commit the offense. In either interpretation of the statute, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley meet the standards for a new trial.
The legal community, nationally as well as in Arkansas, has emerged as an important ally in the effort to obtain a new trial for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. The Arkansas Law Review article comes on the heels of the support of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, who jointly submitted an Amicus Brief to the Arkansas Supreme Court on behalf of Echols’s appeal for a new trial