The hearing to decide whether Damien Echols, one of the men known as the West Memphis Three, was held this morning. For some background, you can check out this story. The Arkansas Supreme Court broadcast the hearings live on the web. A spokesperson for the court asked that viewers go to this site, to route some of the web traffic around the court's own webpage.
The state argued that DNA testing, which turned up no trace of Echols, isn't sufficient to prove innocence in the case and efforts to introduce other evidence developed since the trial would upend the notion of finality in criminal cases.
The justices had many questions. They didn't seem openly hostile to questions raised by the appeal.
UPDATE: A report follows from Mara Leveritt, Times senior editor, who wrote a groundbreaking book about the case and became an advocate for the defendants. She was in the courtroom today for arguments.
Attorneys representing Damien Echols and the Arkansas attorney general’s office argued the meaning and intent of the state’s DNA statutes at a hearing this morning before the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Echols is appealing his sentence to death for the 1993 murders of three children in West Memphis. His attorney, Dennis Riordan of San Francisco told the justices that their decision would affect not just Echols but everyone seeking relief under the DNA laws that Arkansas passed in 2001 and 2005.
David Raupp, an assistant attorney general, argued for a narrow interpretation of the part of those laws which read that new DNA evidence could be presented along with “all other evidence” pertaining to innocence, whether or not it was admitted at the original trial. Raupp told the justices that only evidence that conclusively proved innocence could be presented under the DNA statute. Recent re-testing of evidence found nothing connected to Echols or co-defendants Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The new test did find for the first time DNA of two other men, including the stepfather of one of the victims, among the items retested.
Raupp argued that since the testing did not conclusively prove the three convicted men innocent, they should not be granted a new trial. When Special Justice Jeff Priebe asked Raupp what would be the harm of allowing a new trial with all evidence, Raupp answered, “The harm is in the criminal justice system’s interest in finality.”
After hearing Raupp’s presentation, Riordan took the final part of his allotted time to tell the justices “the state has really proposed an Orwellian interpretation of the word ‘all’.” Referring again to the statute, Riordan said, “all means all.” When asked whether that would include evidence potentially damaging to his client’s case, such as Jessie Misskelley’s confessions, Riordan answered that those, too, would have to be allowed. “Let that come in,” he said. “Fine.”
Questions from the justices indicated that they were interested in deciding what Justice Robert Brown called “parameters” for a new hearing on DNA evidence. Raupp asked the panel to affirm the circuit court’s rejection of Echols’ appeal. Riordan said he hoped the Supreme Court would order a new trial and that, short of that, the court would remand the case to circuit court for a hearing on the new evidence.
In arguments today, little was said about post-conviction evidence that a juror who convicted Echols had improper discussions about the case while it was underway and told other jurors about a confession that was not admitted into evidence. But that information is part of the case before the court. Justice Brown asked Riordan if the DNA statute allowed non-DNA evidence such as this to be considered. All means all, Riordan said.
The attorney general’s office took no questions afterward. The chambers were packed with dozens of supporters of Echols from around the U.S. and other countries. They watched it in an adjoining room on a video feed. About 200 supporters attended a vigil for Echols last night at Quapaw United Methodist Church.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel issued this statement later:
"Today, attorneys from our office appeared before the Arkansas Supreme Court to again address the post-trial motions filed in this case. It is a testament to the fact that our system affords inmates multiple opportunities to be heard that this matter remains in court more than a decade after the jury rendered its verdict.
"Our priority in this case is the same as it is in every case: To pursue justice and fairness with integrity and professionalism. The trial-court judge ruled that the standard to invalidate the jury's verdict and retry this case has not been met. Our lawyers defended that ruling today in reliance upon solid precedent.
"Our justice system affords safeguards to protect the rights of all. That includes not only defendants, but also, in this case, the three innocent little boys who were viciously murdered in 1993."