Attorneys for one of the three men convicted in a 1993 Arkansas murder case that gripped the nation filed a motion Friday in hopes it will lead to an exoneration of the West Memphis Three.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in 1994 for the brutal murder of three 8-year-old boys, whose bodies were discovered in a drainage ditch near West Memphis.
The men have always maintained their innocence and are still seeking evidence in hopes it will clear their names. Attorneys representing Echols have expressed interest in using a new DNA testing method on evidence from the case but have been told that the evidence is missing or has been destroyed.
That prompted Echols’ attorneys to file a motion for declaratory and injunctive relief in Crittenden County Circuit Court on Friday in hopes it will lead to an eventual exoneration.
“The court still has jurisdiction, and we no longer have evidence that we believe was going to help exonerate these young men,” said Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca, who represents Echols.
The case has become a national story entrenched in the minds of those in Crittenden County and the nation thanks to attention drawn by movies, books and documentaries that have been made about the case.
Events began in 1993 when the bodies of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore were discovered naked and hogtied. Investigators thought the murders were part of a Satanic ritual.
While no DNA evidence connected Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to the murders, the three were convicted and sent to prison for nearly 20 years. In 2011, they were released from prison as part of an agreement known as an Alford Plea. Under the plea, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley maintained their innocence but pleaded guilty in exchange for an 18-year sentence, plus time served.
In hopes of clearing their names, Echols has turned to a new DNA testing method called M-Vac. The evidence Echols’ attorneys sought are the victims’ shoes, shoelaces, socks and shirts that were used as ligatures, according to the motion filed Friday.
A prosecutor told Benca that evidence from the case has disappeared or was destroyed in a fire, according to the motion.
“Our request, ultimately, would be to set aside that Alford Plea and have the state retry Mr. Echols with the evidence that they say they no longer have,” Benca said.
While evidence being destroyed or lost isn’t unheard of, the idea that pieces of evidence could have been destroyed or lost without disclosing that fact to the defense attorneys is “crazy bizarre,” Benca said.
“When you have a fire and there’s evidence destroyed in the case, courts get notified, prosecutors get notified, defense attorneys get notified,” he said.
The recent revelation regarding the missing evidence began after attorneys for Echols reached out to then 2nd Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington about testing it. Ellington worked with Benca to help transfer the evidence from the West Memphis Police Department to a private lab in California.
But in April of 2020, Ellington was elected as a circuit judge and was replaced by Keith Chrestman.
Chrestman told Echols’ attorneys that the evidence they sought to test was either lost, misplaced or destroyed in a fire. That prompted Echols’ counsel to file an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request last week, seeking documents pertaining to the missing evidence.