Ten years ago today (Aug. 19), three men convicted of brutally beating three, 8-year-old West Memphis boys to death were released from prison after being incarcerated for almost two decades. A mystery remains as to what happened to critical evidence in the case.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., all of Marion, entered Alford or no contest pleas in the deaths of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in order to regain their freedom. The men, dubbed “The West Memphis Three,” have steadfastly maintained their innocence since the murders happened May 5, 1993. Another condition of their release – 10 years of parole – has now come to an end.
Echols has petitioned prosecutors and the West Memphis Police Department during the last year and a half to do specialized DNA testing on remaining evidence in the case, but officials now claim the evidence was lost or destroyed in a fire years ago although no record of a fire has been released to the public.
“Ten years ago, I had no choice but to take an Alford plea to get off death row. I needed to fight for my innocence, and that of Jason and Jesse, outside of the prison walls, and that is why I sought to test the evidence in the case to exonerate us and lead to the real killer(s). Once we made inquiries to the West Memphis Police to turn over the evidence in the case for advanced testing, the evidence disappeared,” Echols said in a released statement. “We will not give up until we find whatever evidence exists. We will find out who destroyed the evidence and why the legal authorities lied. We want a hearing to get to the bottom of this.”
An Alford plea is where a defendant submits a guilty plea but does not admit to any criminal wrongdoing and asserts innocence.
In an effort to find out what happened to the body of evidence that could potentially contain exculpatory forensics that could exonerate the three and lead to the purported killer, Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request weeks ago seeking all records relating to the missing evidence in the WM3 case. That FOIA request has gone unanswered in violation of Arkansas state law, according to a press release from Soury Communications which represents Echols.
Prosecuting Attorney Keith Chrestman told Talk Business & Politics in April he’d received the requests from Echols’ attorneys. Chrestman said he would allow any evidence to be tested, but it would have to be ordered by a judge.
Echols’ attorneys have also filed a Motion for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief in the Circuit Court of Crittenden County First Division, as well as seeking an expedited hearing.
“Having recently learned of the West Memphis Police Department’s spoliation of evidence in his case, apparently both before and after his Alford plea, Damien Echols moves this court to exercise its continuing supervisory jurisdiction over this case…”
Echols asked the court to:
(a) declare that the WMPD has, by its own admissions, violated the Arkansas DNA statute’s evidence preservation obligations in the WM3 case;
(b) enjoin the WMPD from any further failures to preserve any of the remaining evidence in the WM3 case;
(c) direct the WMPD to immediately provide a full and complete response to Echols’ pending FOIA request seeking further information about the “lost,” “misplaced,” and/or “destroyed” case evidence;
(d) provide a reasonable opportunity for Echols to take discovery to further develop the factual record of what has transpired with respect to the WM3 case evidence;
(e) establish a post-discovery briefing schedule to address the potential remedies the Court might impose as a result of the misconduct at issue herein; and
(f) award such further relief as the Court might deem just and proper.
In May 2020, Echols and his attorney Stephen Braga contacted then-Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington who agreed to release evidence in the case for further DNA testing. In a series of emails, Ellington contacted Kermit Channel at the Arkansas Crime Lab who informed Ellington the trial evidence was located at the West Memphis Police Department. Ellington then contacted WM Police Assistant Chief Langston and Major Stacey Allen who also agreed to provide the evidence for DNA testing, according to Soury Communications.
Filmmaker Bob Ruff, who had recently completed a docuseries on the West Memphis 3 case, had recommended using the new M-Vac DNA system on the existing evidence to hopefully reveal a stronger DNA connection to the perpetrator(s) in the killing of the three children.
Testing had previously revealed that the DNA linked to Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered children, was found in the ligatures on the sneaker of one of the boys. Ruff hoped to confirm that as well as identify other DNA links to the killers. A recent FBI study found the amount of DNA recovered with the M-Vac system was several‐fold greater – the vacuum system yielded an average of 12 times more nDNA and 17x greater mtDNA – than traditional methods.
According to the motion filed, “Braga subsequently reached out to Ellington, who said he had no problem with having the evidence so tested. Over the course of the next eight months, Braga and Ellington engaged in a series of communications designed to facilitate the transmission of specified items of evidence from the WMPD to the laboratory chosen to do the MVac DNA testing. The specified items of evidence were the victims’ shoes, socks, Boy Scout cap, shirts, pants, and underwear, as well as the sticks used to hold the clothing underwater and the shoelaces used as ligatures to bind the victims. The chosen laboratory was Pure Gold Forensics, Inc., a California-accredited private forensic DNA laboratory specializing in the new MVac technology.”
“We have been literally begging the state of Arkansas to allow us to do further DNA testing to clear our names for over a year. We were lied to repeatedly, and now we learn that much of the evidence has been destroyed or lost. This motion asks the court to get involved and find out what if any evidence still exist, what caused the destruction of the evidence, and who is responsible. We are innocent now; nearly 30 years ago when we were convicted; and ten years ago, when we accepted an Alford plea,” Echols said.
During the past year, Echols and his attorneys have tried on numerous occasions to contact the West Memphis Police Department as well as prosecutor, now judge, Scott Ellington to plan to transfer the forensic evidence to a special laboratory for M-Vac testing.
“The West Memphis PD agreed to facilitate the testing of some of the evidence, but then the West Memphis police as well as Prosecutor Ellington stopped communicating with us over the past year. We have now learned that much of the evidence has been lost, destroyed or both. We are deeply concerned about the sequence of events. Was the evidence lost after we requested advanced DNA testing? What evidence is left? Where does that evidence reside now? Bottom line is that we want to submit the remaining evidence for advanced DNA testing to hopefully obtain new DNA results that can help fully exonerate the three men,” Braga said.
Talk Business & Politics has sought comment from the West Memphis Police Department and will update this story when or if a response is received.