Attorneys representing Damien Echols, one of three men convicted of the 1993 killings of three boys whose bodies were found in a drainage ditch near West Memphis, petitioned a court Monday to permit new DNA testing of evidence, hoping to exonerate the men.
Echols, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the West Memphis Three, were convicted in 1994 of the slayings of the 8-year-old boys whose bodies were found hog-tied.
No DNA evidence ever linked them to the deaths, and they were released from prison in 2011 after prosecutors allowed the men to walk free as part of a deal known as an Alford Plea.
They’ve since been trying to clear their names. The latest effort is focused on advanced forensic testing of some remaining evidence from the crime scene.
At the end of December, Echols’ attorney, Little Rock-based Patrick Benca, traveled to the West Memphis Police Department to analyze evidence stored there.
Echol’s team thought much of the evidence was lost or destroyed after Keith Chrestman, the Crittenden County prosecuting attorney, said in April that “much of [the evidence] is gone,” according to a Talk Business & Politics interview with Chrestman.
“In capital murder cases, evidence is kept and securely stored, but in cases like this the evidence is often destroyed or lost,” Chrestman said, according to Talk Business & Politics.
The attorneys said Chrestman also informed them in a call last spring that some of the evidence was lost, misplaced or destroyed by fire.
The December visit to the West Memphis Police Department resulted in Benca and an investigator finding catalogues of remaining evidence, including the ligatures used to tie the boys. These ligatures are key for testing, as minute pieces of genetic material may exist within the fabric that newer technologies could identify and possibly match to an individual in national databases, Benca said.
Benca said Chrestman informed him via email earlier this month that Echols would need to petition the court to conduct the additional forensic testing.
The email was sent after Echols’ counsel sent a “proposed agreed order” to test the evidence to the prosecuting attorney’s office that was rejected, Benca said.
Echols’ attorneys submitted the petition to conduct additional DNA testing Monday to Crittenden County Circuit Court. West Memphis is located in Crittenden County.
“There is statutory law for addressing new scientific evidence and governing physical evidence,” Chrestman said in an email sent Jan. 7 to Echols’ attorneys, according to the petition. “But the proposed order doesn’t reference them. Nor is there an explanation of how the proposed order comports with the law.”
Chrestman could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.
The email continued: “Indeed, it doesn’t cite any legal authority. So, I can’t imagine the circuit court entering this order. I renew my original suggestion (which I emailed to you more than nine months ago): You need to file a petition with the circuit court for the relief your client seeks.”
Citing the Arkansas DNA Statute, which requires preservation of evidence for a sex or violent offense to be securely stored and catalogued, the petition said “the point of these evidentiary preservation provisions is not some empty record-keeping formality.”
“It is, rather, the possibility that such evidence might provide a future opportunity for scientifically testing the validity of certain results obtained in the criminal justice system,” the court document said.
Attorneys argued that Arkansas law supports the use of new DNA testing technologies and for state laws to adapt when new technologies emerge.
“No one knows, of course, whether additional testing of the ligatures with the new M-Vac DNA collection technology will lead to the recovery of new DNA samples for testing or not,” the court document said. “But one thing for certain is that such evidence will definitely not be found if testing with this new technology is not done.”