Back in October, I linked to a New York Times story about questions being raised in the “West Memphis 3″ case. CNN had a long story the other day about the case.
[R]ecent developments — including new eyewitness statements and DNA evidence from the defense — have uprooted her faith in those prosecutions. Once a staunch believer that the teens were guilty, now she says the teens accused of killing her son in the West Memphis 3 deserve a new trial.
“I wanted to believe in our justice system,” said Hobbs, now 45. She moved to Blytheville, Arkansas, shortly after the 1993 trial. “But time heals all wounds, and you start looking at things differently.”
Her public change of heart has been supported by new evidence presented by the defense over the past few years. In 2007, DNA and forensic evidence tests revealed no physical evidence at the crime scene that linked the three teens to murders. The evidence was presented to the state.
Furthermore, DNA that might belong to two other men was found in the knot used to tie Christopher.
One of the men is Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Stevie, the defense says. In 1993, such advanced DNA testing had not been available, attorneys said.
…Three eye witnesses, who resided next to one of the victims, filed affidavits in October with the Arkansas Supreme Court. The witnesses said they saw the second-graders with Terry Hobbs the night before the bodies were found by police.
The statement from the witnesses contradicted Hobbs’ statements to police and in court that he never saw his stepson, Stevie, on the day of the murder. … Pamela Hobbs was divorced from Terry Hobbs in 2004 because of marital problems stemming from the pain that followed her son’s death, she said. She declined to comment on whether she thought her ex-husband saw the 8-year-old boys.
Hobbs has adamantly rejected the defense’s allegations that he saw his stepson that day. Hobbs, 51, who still lives in West Memphis, said the defense is attempting to make him the target because Echols is on death row. There is no execution date set.
He raises the question many skeptics of the three men’s innocence have echoed: Why would the eyewitness evidence surface 16 years later? Why didn’t the witnesses come forward sooner? …
… Mike Walden, prosecuting attorney for Craighead County, where the original trial took place, said the affidavits are weak.”I think most people will tell you these affidavits are insufficient to justify filing charges against someone else,” Walden said about the three new eyewitnesses presented by the defense. “They don’t contain enough evidence to enable a prosecuting attorney to make a charging position.”…
During the original trial in 1993, prosecutors argued the three teens were part of a satanic cult when they murdered the three children. They said punctures and cut marks on the victims were argued to be to be part of a sadistic ritual. After the trial, some forensic examiners argued those marks were animal bite marks.
The prosecution relied on the confession of Misskelley, a 17-year-old with learning disabilities and an IQ of 70. He confessed after an untaped, three-hour interrogation by police without his parents or an attorney present. Misskelley later recanted his confession. …
Pamela Hobbs hasn’t been the only parent of the victims to shift to the side of the West Memphis 3 supporters.
Mark Byers, the father of Christopher, lives in Millington, Tennessee. He said he began to think the three men might be innocent, particularly after the 2007 DNA tests results were released. His wife, Melissa, passed away in 1996.
The case is before trial judge David Burnett on postconviction petitions. According to a site advocating for the three defendants, Judge Burnett has asked for post-trial briefs on January 15, and says he will decide the case shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Arkansas Columnist John Brumett wrote about questions about Judge Burnett, who presided over the trials and then, after retiring, was pointed as a special judge for post-conviction proceedings. Problems? Well, he told a reporter he was “sick of the case,” and he’s announced he’s running for state senate, which should mean he can no longer sit as a judge:
Burnett retired this year after a long career that found him, in 1994, presiding over the original trials in which Damien Echols was convicted of capital murder and given the death penalty while Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.
They were found guilty in the mutilation and slayings of three young boys in West Memphis in 1993. The strongest evidence was that Misskelley, with an IQ of 72, had made contradictory confessions to police. The community was horrified and the three defendants, then in their late teens, were weird and seemed to have an interest in the occult.
After retiring in January, Burnett agreed to appointment as a special judge solely for post-conviction issues that are still percolating from these highly publicized West Memphis cases. The reasoning was that the files were so thick that a new judge would have faced a mountainous learning curve.
Burnett should have had the good grace to decline this appointment if he knew he was running for the state Senate. And he certainly should not have whined to the Jonesboro Sun in tones perhaps suggesting prejudice.
But there it was Sunday — Burnett telling a Sun reporter that, yes, he was intending to run for the Senate; that he was sick and tired of this West Memphis case; and that he regretted letting documentary filmmakers into the courtroom in 1994 because their “Paradise Lost” turned out to be biased for the defendants.
An appellant might feel better if the judge did not tell the newspaper he was sick of the case.
Burnett admitted his misjudgment in a phone conversation Monday. “I shouldn’t have said that, and I’m sorry,” he said.
Surely you see the problem with a declared state Senate candidate serving as a judge. Is Burnett getting quoted as a judge or as a man trying to defend himself in the context of his candidacy for the state Senate?
If Burnett rules against these defendants in their latest pleading, will they have reason to be satisfied that they got full and fair consideration?
I shouldn’t think so.
Already there is an article in the University of Arkansas Law Review saying Burnett erred in denying Echols a new trial on new evidence that there was no DNA evidence putting him at the scene. Burnett said the absence of evidence was not innocence.
Finally, a press release from the defense team describes issues raised in Damien Echols’s case before the Arkansas Supreme Court this Fall:
Two prominent national legal organizations jointly presented an Amicus Curiae brief to the court asking the justices to set aside Echols’ conviction, citing the original jury’s violation of the constitution and the judge’s instructions by openly discussing and considering Jessie Misskelley’s false confession during the trial. The “confession,” which was barred from the Echols trial because Jessie had immediately recanted and refused to testify against Damien and Jason Baldwin, was nevertheless purposefully introduced to the jury by Kent Arnold, the jury foreman, who admitted that he was trying to convince other jurors to convict based upon news reports of the so-called confession.
“Compounding the jury foreman’s misconduct is the fact that the Misskelley confession is highly unreliable,” said Steven Drizin, Legal Director of Northwestern University School of Law’s renowned Center on Wrongful Convictions, who co-authored the amicus brief. “Juveniles and the mentally retarded are much more likely than adults to falsely confess when pressured by police, and Misskelley’s confession bears all of the hallmark traits of a false confession.”
According to the amicus brief, “It is now known that Echols’ jury violated the constitution and the judge’s instructions by discussing Misskelley’s confession during deliberations, not long after one juror told his attorney that he was growing frustrated by the State’s weak collection of circumstantial evidence and that if prosecutors did not present something powerful soon, it would be up to him to secure a conviction.” (see www.Freewestmemphis3.org)
“Echols’ conviction and death sentence have been gravely tainted by the jury’s improper consideration of the extraordinarily prejudicial – and extraordinarily unreliable -confession of Jessie Misskelley. If any reasonable juror were confronted today with evidence of the Misskelley confession’s unreliability, along with the petitioner’s DNA evidence that excludes Echols as a source, he would surely conclude that Echols is not guilty. Accordingly, Amici hereby request this Court to grant petitioner Damien Echols a new trial. Failure to do so could bring about a terrible injustice: the execution of an innocent man.”
Crime Scene DNA Does Not Match Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley
In addition to the juror misconduct and Misskelley’s false confession, new evidence presented to the court includes DNA and forensic findings that link others to the crime scene. Dozens of pieces of evidence found at the crime scene conclusively show that no DNA from the murders matches Echols or the other two men. DNA testing, however, links Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered children, to the crime scene. A hair found in the knot used to bind the victims matches Terry Hobbs. DNA testing linking Hobbs to the crime scene was not available at the time of the trial.
Scientific evidence from the nation’s leading forensic experts also demonstrates that most of the wounds on the victims were caused by animals at the crime scene, after their deaths – not by knives used by the perpetrators, as the prosecution claimed and was the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. Moreover, evidence presented that a knife recovered from a lake near one defendant’s home caused the wounds was completely discredited by the pathologists. As well, these forensic scientists deemed the testimony of a jailhouse informant and a faux “expert” who testified that the knife wounds were part of a satanic ritual, incredulous.
h/t Joyce for the CNN story.