LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It took a jury 13 days to convict and sentence Damien Echols to death for the 1993 slayings of three second-graders.
Now, nearly 15 years later, Echols is hoping to convince the judge who oversaw his original case to grant him a new trial. His attorneys said DNA tests clear him and the two others in prison for the crime.
Attorneys for Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known to supporters as the "West Memphis Three," met Wednesday with Craighead County Circuit Judge David Burnett and the case's original prosecutor.
The meeting was to lay out a schedule for a three-week slate of hearings in September on DNA evidence and claims of juror misconduct in their 1994 trials over the murders of 8-year-olds Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.
In an hour-long hearing Wednesday, Burnett said he would likely hold the hearings, set to start Sept. 8. But he also said he could rule, following a prosecutor's suggestion, that the DNA evidence offered by defense attorneys isn't sufficient to order a new trial or overturn the convictions.
Burnett said he would issue a decision a few days before the scheduled hearings on whether the DNA evidence would be allowed.
Echols' lawyers say the evidence would clear the three. They say the tests found no trace of the defendants' DNA, though the tests did not identify anyone else's genetic material, either.
Gag order issued
Burnett banned television cameras and recording devices from his courtroom for the proceedings, citing the controversy around the case. He earlier barred both prosecutors and defense lawyers from speaking with reporters about the case, saying he was tired of reading about it in the newspapers.
The news dominated newspapers and television sets throughout Arkansas and the nation after police found the three boys' water-soaked bodies in a drainage ditch a day after their May 5, 1993, disappearance from West Memphis.
The boys' hands were bound to their legs by shoelaces and their bodies showed signs of suffering severe beatings. One boy's body had been mutilated. A month passed and the community posted a $30,000 reward before police arrested the three teens. Misskelley told investigators he watched Baldwin and Echols sexually assault and beat two of the boys as he ran down another trying to escape.
A separate jury gave Misskelley, who refused to testify against the other two, a life-plus-40-year sentence for the killings. Baldwin received a life sentence without parole after standing trial with Echols, who preened at times during the trial and quoted Shakespeare to reporters. Echols was sentenced to die.
The Arkansas Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Baldwin and Echols' convictions in 1996, citing what it called substantial evidence of guilt.
Later documentaries on the killings and trials stoked supporters' doubts about the men's convictions, saying they were picked out because they liked heavy metal music and had an interest in the occult.
Defense lawyers claim detectives coerced two taped statements out of Misskelley, whom they described as having the mental grasp of a child. State Supreme Court justices refused to throw out the statements in Misskelley's appeal, noting that he was advised of his rights three times during a four-hour interview with officers.
Misskelley's statement was not used in Baldwin and Echols' trial. Evidence in that case included witnesses who testified that they heard defendants talk about the crimes. A witness also was allowed to testify as an expert on satanism to prove the government's theory that the murders were committed by Satan worshippers.
The new hearing comes after a wide-ranging federal appeal of Echols' death sentence.
Testimony from forensic experts in the appeal also claim the mutilation of one of the boys likely came from an animal after their deaths — rather than prosecutors' claims about satanic rituals.
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