Reposted with permission from a person inside the courtroom today:
Damien Echols’ request to retest evidence in the 1993 murders of three 8 year old boys has been DENIED by a Circuit Judge in West Memphis. Judge Tonya Alexander ruled that, under the current state habeas corpus laws, Echols is not eligible to retest evidence because he is no longer a prisoner in state custody.
Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of murdering Michael Moore, Chris Byers, and Stevie Branch in West Memphis in 1993. They pled guilty to the crimes but were released from prison under an Alford Plea in 2011.
Patrick Benca, who represented Echols today, argued that Echols cannot be “truly free” until evidence is retested and Echols is exonerated. Judge Alexander pointed out that Echols missed his chance at exoneration in 2011. “You had an opportunity to request a new trial. Instead you chose an Alford Plea,” Judge Alexander admonished.
Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were scheduled for a hearing to present “new evidence” from previous DNA retesting back in December 2011, but instead of presenting that evidence in court, their attorneys arranged a deal to plead guilty in exchange for time served which then-prosecutor Scott Ellington accepted. They were released from prison in August 2011. They vowed to “find the real killer” once free, but have done little in the last ten years to actually do that.
During today’s testimony and in interviews after the proceedings, Benca erroneously referred to a hair found on a shoestring used to bind the victims as “matching” another person. Previous evidence retesting by the defense did produce a hair with some mitochondrial similarities to the stepfather of one of the victims. However, in 2007 an expert representing Echols and his team said the hair actually matched 1.5% of the population, which amounts to millions of people. The hair was never definitively proven to belong to the victim’s stepfather. Despite this fact, Echols also continued to falsely state that the hair “matched” the stepfather in interviews following the hearing today while ironically also stating he’s “not one to point fingers.”
Echols and his team had hoped to retest the shoestrings for additional DNA with a form of DNA extraction developed more than a decade ago called M-Vac. M-Vac uses liquid and suction to vacuum DNA out of evidence for testing. Benca said in today’s hearing that the DNA of the person responsible for the crimes would be “locked in that knot” on the shoelaces. However the fact is, lack of DNA from Echols, Misskelley or Baldwin on the shoestrings would not exonerate them. Presence of DNA from someone else on the shoestrings would also likely be insufficient to charge that person with the murders. If Echols’ DNA had been found on the shoestrings in retesting he could not be tried again for the murders.
Judge Alexander advised Echols and his attorneys that if they wanted to pursue further testing, the avenue they should take is to talk to state legislators about changing the habeas corpus law to allow freed convicted felons to continue to retest evidence to seek exoneration and to clear their names.
“I don’t follow public opinion or emotions. I follow the law,” Judge Alexander said.
Benca told reporters and the crowd gathered outside the courtroom that he would probably appeal the decision.
Dozens of Echols’ supporters gathered outside the courthouse but only about 30 people - media and some people closely connected to the case - were allowed to attend the hearing. Echols sat at the defense table with attorney Benca. People in the gallery of the courtroom included Jason Baldwin, Echols’ wife Lorri Davis, Echols’ public relations person Lonnie Soury, and about 8 members of the media.