After 17 years of asking, the West Memphis Three
are finally getting another day in court.
On Thursday, the Arkansas Supreme Court
ordered a judge to consider whether newly analyzed DNA evidence might exonerate the three men convicted in the 1993 murders of three West Memphis Cub Scouts. The justices also said a lower court must examine claims of juror misconduct, which opens the door for defense attorneys to bring in all evidence not presented in the original trials. The court voted unanimously for new hearings.
Damien Echols sits on death row for the murders of the three children. Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley Jr. received life sentences.
At the time of the murders, there was speculation that the case was an occult killing. Echols was singled out because he wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and read horror novels, although he did not know the three boys. He and Baldwin and Misskelley were accused of murder, sexual mutilation and cutting and beating the victims. The evidence and the facts of the crime never matched. All three of the accused were teenagers when they were convicted.
The WM3 case has generated major netroots activism, and drawn celebrity support
from Johnny Depp, singer Patti Smith, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, among others. They staged a concert in August to draw attention to the case, especially in Arkansas, where it had gotten very little attention until recently. HBO has produced two documentaries and is currently filming a third.
The court also pointed out Thursday that Circuit Judge David Burnett erred repeatedly in the case, including dismissing requests to consider DNA and other exculpatory evidence without a hearing. Burnett has been the focus of activists' campaigns because of his pro-prosecution stances. He will not hear the new case because he was recently elected to the state legislature. Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has also fought against a new hearing.
McDaniel said he respected the court's ruling but added that his office "intends to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to defend the jury verdicts in this case."
When the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late September, activists from around the world for Free the WM3 and Arkansas Take Action
filled the chamber.
Over the years, Echols has petitioned higher courts numerous times, including the U.S. Supreme Court, but has been denied a new hearing.