by Max Brantley
We'll declare this the Sunday open line. But a final note:
* WEST MEMPHIS THREE AND THE ARKANSAS CRIME LAB: Did you read the sympathetic treatment of the Arkansas Crime Lab in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (pay wall) this morning? In it, C.S. Murphy (who has relied on this office for help on other previous topics) got employees' first extensive comments on the West Memphis Three case since the release of the three men convicted in the slayings. I found little new there except for self-pity on the part of lab employees. The WM3 weren't convicted on forensic evidence to begin with, but primarily on a contested confession and Satan hysteria. Indeed, the very lack of forensic evidence was critical to their ultimate release. I thought it interesting that the newspaper and the lab would declare the case "closed" and thus open to full record inspection and discussion. (Noted: the inspection of Crime Lab records produced nothing new that argued for the guilt of the three. If wounds weren't caused by animals, but by human bites or knife wounds — to name one point of forensic contention — no one has yet believably linked those wounds to the men convicted.) Still, it was an indication, if totally unsurprising, that the apparatus of the state has no intention of going to look for other suspects now that the Three are free.
Never mind me. Mara Leveritt, author of "Devil's Knot," the definitive book on the case, is far more familiar with details and with the conflicting accounts from the Crime Lab have given in the past. She's filed an analysis of the morning's story from her deep knowledge. Give her the floor on the jump for an answer to the one-sided D-G report:
By Mara Leveritt
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has never taken a serious look at the cesspool of issues that have come to be known as the case of the West Memphis Three. Today’s paper offers another example.
While focusing on the difficulties that officials at the Arkansas Crime Laboratory have suffered since the 1993 murders of three West Memphis boys, a front-page article skips over the hard questions about the lab’s role in trials that put three teenagers in prison for almost 18 years.
In August, when Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington announced his decision to enter the deal that set Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., free, Ellington said he did so because it would be “practically impossible to put on a proper case” against the men if, as expected, they were granted a new trial. Ellington explained that, “Since the original convictions, two of the victims’ families have joined forces with the defense, publicly proclaiming the innocence of the defendants. The mother of a witness who testified about Echols’s confession has publicly questioned her daughter’s truthfulness, and the State Crime Lab employee who collected fiber evidence at the Echols and Baldwin homes after their arrests has died.”
But the fibers did not die. That evidence presumably remains in the lab’s possession. If a new trial were ordered, those fibers would be tested again. If the lab’s findings were sound enough in 1993 to warrant sentencing Echols to death and Baldwin to life in prison, that evidence would be sound enough to do the same now, whether or not the original technician was alive to testify about the results. The state simply had no confidence in the only piece of physical evidence it produced against the defendants in these horrific, hands-on murders.
The article quoted the lab’s Dr. Frank Peretti bemoaning how he’d been “attacked” by “groupies” who believe that the West Memphis Three are innocent. Maybe Peretti counts me as one of his attackers. I did write in Devil’s Knot about how he testified under oath at Misskelley’s trial that he could not estimate the time of the boys’ deaths. That allowed for Misskelley to be convicted solely on the basis of a confession he’d made to police, in which he said he’d participated in the killings at various times on May 5—the latest time being just after dark.
But then, at the subsequent trial of Baldwin and Echols, Peretti testified that the children were most likely not murdered on May 5 at all, but on the following day, “between 1 a.m. and, you know, five or seven in the morning.” Some courts would have considered that statement perjury, or at least reason enough to grant Misskelley a new trial. But Judge David Burnett, who officiated at both trials overlooked it, and so did the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Although the state won convictions for all three teenagers, even the prosecuting attorney was incensed by Peretti’s conflicting testimony. “I will say this,” John Fogleman told me later, “if you rely on Dr. Peretti for a time of death opinion, it’s a mistake. Dr. Peretti is another book.”
Peretti also complained in the article about having to keep quiet about the case while supporters of the men in prison spoke out. Yet, I remember a few years ago, when criminal justice club at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock invited Peretti to speak about the West Memphis case for a noontime fundraiser, and Peretti accepted. I went to hear him, but shortly after Peretti arrived, the club’s faculty sponsor approached me to whisper that he would not present his talk if I remained in the audience. During the tense moments that followed, Peretti expanded his demand, announcing that he would not speak about the case if any law students were present either. Ultimately, Peretti opted to change his topic.
There is much to criticize in the state’s handling of this case, and Peretti’s conduct ranks high on the list. While the West Memphis police were struggling with their investigation, Peretti did not help them by providing information from the autopsies because, according to today’s article, he thought someone was leaking information to the media. But that was not his call to make. The crime lab’s stated mission is “to provide the highest quality scientific services and resources to the criminal justice community…,” not to withhold those services on a personal whim.
Today’s article quoted a letter in which the West Memphis police chief complained about the lack of information his department had received from the lab. What it did not quote was the line from that letter, dated three weeks after the murders, in which the police chief begged: “We need information from the crime lab desperately.”