Damien Echols filed a petition Monday (Jan. 9) with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking it to allow for new M-Vac touch DNA testing on ligatures collected in the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis.
Judge Tonya Alexander dismissed a petition filed in June to have the evidence tested in Crittenden County Circuit Court citing a lack of jurisdiction. The petition before the Supreme Court asks for that decision to be reversed and that the case be remanded back to the circuit court.
“Although I was released from Death Row, and Jason and Jesse were freed from their life sentences, we have never been free. We are convicted of murdering three children and, although we were allowed to maintain our innocence in the Alford Plea deal, we were never truly free, never declared innocent by the court, and the real killer(s) have never been brought to justice. I ask the judges on the Arkansas Supreme Court, allow us to conduct state of the art DNA testing that might help identify those responsible for this heinous act, and hopefully exonerate the West Memphis 3,” Echols said.
Echols and his co-defendants in the case, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., agreed to Alford pleas on Aug. 19, 2011 in the killings. The three men, known as The West Memphis Three or WM3, were released after spending more than 18 years in prison. All three have steadfastly maintained their innocence for decades.
Baldwin agreed with Echols and said he hopes the state will reverse its decision to not conduct advanced DNA testing. He said it is the only way the families of the slain boys will know who killed them.
“This is a great opportunity for West Memphis, the state of Arkansas, Pam Hicks, The Byers Family and the Moore Family to have definitive proof of who murdered Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch. Justice demands all avenues be pursued to identify the murderer(s). From the beginning Jessie, Damien and I have cooperated to the best of our ability in the investigations of these murders not limited to providing DNA samples to the WMPD for comparison pre-trial. Pam Hicks and many others also cooperated in this fashion. We have all cooperated so that the identity of the murderer(s) can be discovered,” Baldwin said.
Judge Alexander told Echols during the June hearing that since he was not in prison, he could not seek relief in the form of DNA testing. In the appeal, Echols attorneys argue the judge’s interpretation of the law was false and that there are other consequences that come as a result of a criminal conviction that go beyond simple incarceration.
The brief filed Monday noted that “Although the DNA Act 1780 nowhere mentions imprisonment as a condition for relief, the circuit judge noted that the statute is included within the Habeas Corpus Chapter of the Arkansas Code and that habeas relief can only be sought by one who is wrongfully imprisoned. Thus, the court concluded that it had no power to order the conducting of state-of -the-art DNA testing on the evidence. The Arkansas DNA statute clearly states, ‘Except when direct appeal is available, a person convicted of a crime may make a motion for the performance of fingerprinting, forensic deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing, or other tests which may become available through advances in technology to demonstrate the person’s actual innocence. Ark Code Section 16-112-202.’”
Prosecutors will have 30 days to file a response.
Echols attorney Stephen Braga argued that if the decision, based on Alexander is upheld, many defendants seeking relief from a wrongful conviction in the state will not receive justice.
“Under the circuit court’s interpretation, innocent individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes in Arkansas with new DNA technology available that might exonerate them cannot use the Arkansas courts to access that DNA testing unless they are in prison. Innocent individuals wrongfully convicted who either completed service of their sentences or avoided sentences of imprisonment in the first place are left wholly without a remedy. They may be innocent, but in the eyes of the Arkansas criminal justice system they are ‘forever damned,’” Braga said.
The brief further notes that “Innocence is a state of being. It is not a state of location, in prison or not. One is either ‘free from guilt’ or not. There is no in between. It is a binary determination. Why would anyone not want to encourage that determination to be made? Arkansas is ‘a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all, and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done . . . . guilt shall not escape, or innocence suffer.’”
M-Vac CEO Jared Bradley previously told Talk Business & Politics that hundreds of labs around the country use the method to retrieve DNA. The boys were bound ankle to wrist with their own shoelaces. Those ligatures have a rough surface that could have collected skin cells from the killer or killers as the bindings were tied, Bradley said.
It was noted in the appeal that M-Vac testing is used by the Craighead County Sheriff’s Department and the Marion Police Department, both of which are in the same judicial district. Prosecutors had previously argued that M-Vac testing hadn’t been proven or vetted enough to be trusted even though law enforcement agencies within the district utilize it in other criminal investigations.