West Memphis Three to get hearing this week on new DNA testing

A hearing this week could decide whether evidence from one of the most high profile murder cases in Arkansas history can be retested for genetic material in hopes it reveals who killed three children nearly 30 years ago near West Memphis.

Attorneys for Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, will appear in court Thursday in Crittenden County for a hearing where they will seek access to evidence from the crime scene where three 8-year-old boys were found brutally murdered in a drainage ditch near West Memphis in 1993.

Echols, along with Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, were convicted in 1994 for the killings, spending years in prison until they were granted immediate freedom under a deal known as an Alford Plea, which permitted Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to maintain their innocence yet plead guilty in exchange for 18-year-sentences and credit for time served.

Echols, his wife Lori Davis, who he met while incarcerated, as well as Baldwin are expected to attend the 9:30 a.m. hearing, Lonnie Soury, an adviser, said Friday morning.

The West Memphis Three were released in August 2011. They have been working to clear their names since. No DNA evidence ever linked them to the slayings. Lawyers contend that more advanced genetic testing equipment might detect fragments of DNA that were not detectable when evidence was first examined in the early ’90s.

This week’s court date comes “after two years of lies, unnecessary delay and obfuscation by some Arkansas legal authorities that prevents the West Memphis Three’s Damien Echols from conducting state-of-the-art DNA testing on the evidence in the murder of three children in 1993,” a May news release from Echols’ legal team said.

For two years, Echols’ attorneys say they have been trying to access evidence from the crime scene, including ligatures used to hogtie the boys as well as articles of clothing. They hope more sophisticated genetic testing technology might unveil DNA from the true perpetrator.

Their quest to see what evidence remained nearly met a dead-end after an interview published last April on the news website Talk Business & Politics with Keith Chrestman, prosecuting attorney for the Second Judicial District, which includes Crittenden County where West Memphis is located.

In that interview, Chrestman confirmed the evidence might no longer exist.

That turned out to not be the case after Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca, who represents Echols, visited the West Memphis Police Department in December and found much of the exhibits from the crime scene to still be catalogued there.

“We are pleased that the evidence is intact,” Benca said in the news release. “We are planning to move ahead and test this evidence using the latest DNA technology available to hopefully identify the real killer(s) of the three children in 1993 and exonerate Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.”


   

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