by Max Brantley
The state Supreme Court has ordered a new circuit court evidentiary hearing on Damien Echols' appeal of his conviction and death sentence in the West Memphis Three case. It issued similar orders for co-defendants Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, both serving life sentences.
The court said Circuit Judge David Burnett had erred in dismissing their requests to consider DNA evidence and other exculpatory evidence without a hearing. The ruling is a key interpretation of the state's relatively new DNA statute and a broad one. The court said the circuit judge must consider not only the DNA evidence the defendants want to submit, but any other exculpatory evidence, including evidence not presented in the original trials.
The court said Burnett had too narrowly interpreted the law passed since Echols' conviction that allows use of DNA evidence to establish ground for reversal of convictions. DNA testing found no trace of Echols' or two co-defendants' DNA in evidence submitted in the case. Some DNA of others was found, however. This isn't absolute proof of innocence, but that isn't the standard intended by the law, the Supreme Court ruled.
In a footnote, the Supreme Court also opened the door for Echols to raise his argument about juror misconduct in his case. A juror has told a lawyer that he told other jurors about a co-defendant's supposed confession that was inadmissible in Echols' trial. The order means the defendants will be able to raise, in conjunction with the absence of DNA, all exculpatory evidence that jurors should have been able to hear in their convictions in the 1993 slaying of three West Memphis children. Baldwin also was granted his request for further scientific testing of hair samples.
Here's the Echols opinion. Here's the Misskelley ruling. Here's the Baldwin ruling. The court was unanimous, with Justices Ronald Sheffield and Robert Brown and Chief Justice Jim Hannah writing the Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin opinions, respectively.
The further good news for all defendants is that Burnett, consistenty pro-prosecution in the case, will no longer be judge. He's been elected to the state Senate. He is no longer able to adjudicate the case, the Supreme Court said. The court directed the administrative judge of the circuit to reassign the case according to the district's assignment plan. Judge Ralph Wilson's office said he'd be reviewing the order and the schedule of 11 judges in the circuit before making a decision.
Atttorney General Dustin McDaniel, his arguments shredded in this particular ruling, says his office will do its duty and continue to defend the jury verdicts in these cases. Truthfully, he can do no other. But he perhaps could be watchful about his bloodthirsty quotient in the weeks ahead. These are badly flawed cases, thanks to misconduct and prejudice from the land from whence he comes.