Attorneys for Damien Echols dispute a prosecutor’s argument for denying new wet-vacuum DNA testing on evidence from the West Memphis Three case.
Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in 1994 for the murder of three 8-year-old boys — Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore — whose bodies were discovered the previous year in a drainage ditch near West Memphis.
The case, which got nationwide attention, became known as the West Memphis Three case.
While no DNA evidence connected Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to the murders, the three were convicted and sent to prison for nearly 20 years. In 2011, they were released from prison as part of an agreement known as an Alford plea. Under the plea, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley maintained their innocence but pleaded guilty in exchange for an 18-year sentence, plus time served.
They’ve since been trying to clear their names.
On Jan. 24, Echols’ attorneys filed a motion in Crittenden County Circuit Court saying they wanted to use M-Vac wet-vacuum DNA testing on sneaker laces that were used to hogtie the three boys. This type of DNA testing wasn’t available when previous DNA tests were done on evidence from the crime scene, according to the court filing.
On Feb. 8, Prosecuting Attorney Keith L. Chrestman wrote in a court filing that Echols’ request for new DNA testing doesn’t meet the requirements under Arkansas Act 1780 of 2001.
Chrestman cited three primary ways in which he said Echols’ petition fails to meet the requirements: It’s filed in the wrong county (Crittenden when it should have been Craighead), Echols is no longer a state prisoner and the petition was filed more than three years after his conviction.
Also, the M-Vac wet-vacuum collection method that Echols wants could damage evidence from the case, wrote Chrestman.
Last week, Echols’ attorneys filed a response.
“Now that it is clear that the current Prosecuting Attorney has no intention of meeting the commitments made by the prior Prosecuting Attorney, at the time of the Alford plea and thereafter, to cooperate with the defendants’ efforts to develop further evidence of their innocence, it is up to this Court to afford the fairness and due process that justice requires on the instant Petition,” according to the filing by Echols attorneys, Stephen L. Braga and Patrick J. Benca.
The case is filed in the proper court because Echols’ 2011 Alford plea proceedings “resulted the Craighead County convictions being vacated and replaced with the Alford plea convictions in Crittenden County. The State’s opening argument, thus, falls completely flat,” according to last week’s court filing.
The fact that Echols has already completed his prison sentence is irrelevant, according to his attorneys.
“This conclusion is based on the flawed assumption that the only consequence that matters from a conviction is its sentence,” they wrote.
And the three-year time limit is irrelevant because a “new method of technology that is substantially more probative than prior testing is available,” wrote Echols’ attorneys, citing Ark. Code Ann. Section 16-112-202(10)(B)(iv).
“The ‘new method of technology’ detailed in Echols’ Petition makes this timeliness argument a complete red herring,” according to last week’s filing.
Any testing of evidence for DNA alters the physical evidence to some degree, wrote Echols’ attorneys. The old technology of wet swabbing evidence for potential DNA contained in fluids or contact touch points is to remove (or recover) that DNA from the evidence for testing in the laboratory, according to their filing.
“Thus, after such swabbing, the evidence has necessarily been altered by the removal of that DNA from it,” wrote Echols’ attorneys. “The Arkansas DNA statute’s preservation obligation has to allow for this degree of evidentiary alteration through the testing process, or else there would never be ANY DNA testing ever turning the statute into a wholly meaningless enactment.”
“Fortunately, this case does not require the Court to calibrate too precisely what degree of evidentiary alteration might be effected by the M-Vac technology on the evidentiary items proposed for testing,” according to Echols’ attorneys. “That is because this case contains six separate ligatures, not just one, for potential testing. Two ligatures were used on each of the child victims: one to tie each victim’s right ankle and right wrist together behind their backs and one to tie each victim’s left ankle and left wrist together in the same way. Three victims with two ligatures each provides a total of six pieces of this type of evidence for analysis. Because the facts of this case present no reason to suggest that the killer(s) handled the ligatures associated with one victim any differently than the others, each of the ligatures should present equal potential evidentiary value for M-Vac processing. Accordingly, this Court can order M-Vac testing of any subset it chooses of this ligatures evidence and still fully ensure the preservation of such ligature evidence for the future as well.”