Attorneys for one of the three men convicted of a 1993 Arkansas murder that rocked the nation filed a motion Friday in hopes that it will result in relief for 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 found in a drainage ditch near West Memphis.
The men have always protested their innocence and are still looking for evidence in the hope that it will wash their names away. Lawyers representing Echols have expressed an interest in using a new method of DNA testing on evidence from the case, but have been told that the evidence is missing or has been destroyed.
This prompted Echols attorneys to file a declaration and injunction with the Crittenden County Circuit Court on Friday in the hopes that it would result in eventual discharge.
“The court still has jurisdiction and we have no more evidence that we believe would exonerate these young men,” said Patrick Benca, Little Rock attorney who represents Echols.
The case has become a national story that has anchored itself on the minds of people of Crittenden County and the nation thanks to the attention of films, books, and documentaries made about the case.
Events began in 1993 when the bodies of Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore were discovered naked and handcuffed. Investigators believed the murders were part of a satanic ritual.
While Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley linked no DNA evidence to the murders, the three were convicted and jailed for nearly 20 years. In 2011, they were released from prison under an arrangement called the Alford Plea. As part of the plea, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley pleaded innocence, but pleaded guilty in exchange for an 18-year prison sentence plus time served.
Hoping to clear their names, Echols turned to a new DNA testing method called M-Vac. The evidence sought by Echols ‘attorneys is the victims’ shoes, laces, socks and shirts, which were used as ligatures according to the motion filed on Friday.
A prosecutor told Benca that evidence from the case had disappeared or was destroyed in a fire, the motion said.
“Our request would ultimately be to put Alford Plea aside and have the state renegotiate Mr Echols with the evidence they say they no longer have,” Benca said.
Although evidence is destroyed or lost, the notion that evidence may have been destroyed or lost without disclosing that fact to defense lawyers is “insanely bizarre,” said Benca.
“If there is a fire and evidence is destroyed in the case, courts will be notified, prosecutors will be notified, defense lawyers will be notified,” he said.
The latest revelation of the lack of evidence began after Echols attorneys reached out to then District Attorney Scott Ellington to test it. Ellington worked with Benca to transfer the evidence from the West Memphis Police Department to a private laboratory in California.
But in April 2020, Ellington was elected district judge and replaced by Keith Chrestman.
Chrestman told Echols attorneys that the evidence they were trying to test was either lost, misplaced, or destroyed in a fire. This prompted Echols’ attorney to file a motion under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act last week to request documents related to the missing evidence.