Efforts by attorney for the so-called West Memphis 3 to secure potentially exculpatory forensic DNA evidence have hit a snag, and the district court judge who as an attorney represented one of the three is taking a keen interest in the situation.
As announced by Arkansas Take Action on July 7, West Memphis 3 defendant Damien Echols has learned that evidence that was preserved at the West Memphis, Ark. Police Department has either been destroyed, is missing, or both. This development reportedly delivered a blow to Echols’ efforts to seek new DNA evidence that could fully exonerate him, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley of the murders of Steve “Stevie” Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore of West Memphis. The three were only 8 years old when they were discovered dead in a West Memphis bayou in 1993.
District Court Judge Dan Stidham represented Misskelley in the 1994 trial. “I have been hearing about the possibility that some evidence in the case had either come up missing entirely or had been destroyed,” he wrote in a statement to The Daily Press. “There is an effort underway to determine what, if any, evidence is still available for further DNA testing with advanced technology.
“I am not at liberty to discuss the specifics of these efforts, but I support any and all efforts to exonerate completely the West Memphis Three who are completely innocent of these horrific crimes. This may be an inconvenient truth for the State of Arkansas but it is the truth nonetheless.”
Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were all convicted in 1994 of murdering the boys. Echols was originally sentenced to death, Misskelley to life plus two 20-year sentences in the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC), and Baldwin to life in the ADC. As part of an “Alford plea,” the sentences of all three were reduced to time served and they were released on Aug. 19, 2011.
According to legaldictionary.net, an “Alford plea” is sometimes used in plea bargaining, as it allows the accused person to enter a plea recognizing that the prosecution’s evidence would likely result in a conviction, even while maintaining he did not commit the crime. Such a plea allows the accused to accept a plea bargain for a lesser sentence than he would receive if convicted at trial.
The Alford plea came about in part as the result of new DNA technology unavailable for the original trial that indicated none of the DNA evidence available established any link between any of the three and the victims.
Echols has been seeking the reportedly lost DNA evidence to subject it to further, even more advanced DNA testing both to establish firmly the innocence of the three but also to help determine who the real killer is. The newly developed M-Vac DNA system would be used on the existing evidence, hopefully to reveal a stronger DNA connection to the real perpetrator(s) in the killing of the three children. Even beforehand, according to law2.umkc.edu, new DNA testing of the evidence showed a hair found in a knot used to tie up one of the victims was found to be “not inconsistent with” Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch.
According to Arkansas Take Action, Little Rock Attorney Patrick Benca submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking all records relating to the missing evidence in the West Memphis 3 case, to find out what happened to the body of evidence that could potentially contain exculpatory forensics.
And in May 2020, Echols and his attorney Stephen Braga contacted then-Second Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney (now circuit judge) Scott Ellington, who agreed to release evidence in the case for further DNA testing. The Arkansas Crime Lab reportedly informed Ellington that the trial evidence was at the West Memphis Police Department. So Ellington then contacted Assistant Police Chief Robert Langston and Maj. Stacey Allen who also agreed to provide the evidence for DNA testing.
But according to Braga, the West Memphis police and Ellington stopped communicating with him the past year.
“We now have learned that much of the evidence has been lost, destroyed or both,” he said. “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?”