West Memphis Three: Three men convicted, DNA evidence reopens case
For the first time in Arkansas, convicted murderers prevail in seeking review of DNA evidence. Such reviews have exonerated 261 others, but will it help West Memphis Three?
Little Rock, Ark.
Gradually, resistance to postconviction DNA testing is abating, as prisoners who maintain their innocence are granted new hearings or exonerated because advances in forensic and DNA testing can now back up their claims.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Arkansas is about to have its first such case – and it's a big, high-profile one.
The case of the so-called West Memphis Three – a cause célèbre for 17 years, ever since three teens were convicted of murdering three young boys – is heading back to court, upon order of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
For Arkansas, it's the first test of the language of an amended 2005 statute, which not only granted postconviction access to DNA testing for people who claim innocence, but also opened the door for consideration of any evidence that presents a reasonable probability that the person making the motion "did not commit the offense." The amended statute also allows the prosecution to introduce additional evidence.
The state Supreme Court's decision early this month doesn't mean the three prisoners – Damien Echols, who sits on death row, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley Jr. – are innocent. It doesn't necessarily mean they'll get a new trial. But it does mean that a lower court judge must hold a hearing to consider evidence that may cast doubt on their guilt.
When the case was tried in 1993, forensic DNA evidence was introduced, but the defense argued that it was tainted or crudely tested. None of it, however, linked the West Memphis Three to the crime. More recent tests on forensic evidence from the case have turned up various strands of DNA, but none that matched any of the West Memphis Three.
"This case is unique in that the DNA doesn't exonerate the West Memphis Three but provides more evidence toward possible innocence," says Felicia Epps, a professor at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. "It could be enough for a trial judge to say that there is enough compelling evidence that would result in an acquittal."
Arkansas has never exonerated a prisoner on the basis of DNA evidence or, as in the West Memphis Three case, the lack of it, according to the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reform of the criminal justice system.
It's already happened, though, in 34 other states, where 261 people have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989.
Forty-eight states have DNA laws similar to the one Arkansas enacted in 2005. Alaska passed a DNA access law earlier this year. Only Oklahoma and Massachusetts do not have laws that allow for postconviction DNA testing.
In Massachusetts, prosecutors have fought such legislation, arguing that DNA requests should be considered on a case-by-case basis. A new law would overload the legal system and state crime labs, opponents say.