Finally! A sane decision from an Arkansas court. And the first ray of sunlight in a dark, legal tunnel that has stolen half the lives of three men and failed to find justice for the deaths of three little boys. In a unanimous decision, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled for evidentiary hearings to be scheduled for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley.
As explained here, attorneys sought a new trial for the three men a couple of years ago with evidence including DNA results that completely excluded the West Memphis Three but implicated the stepfather of one of the slain boys. Judge David Burnett, who has the rare distinction of having dismissed multiple appeals on this case which he himself officiated, predictably dismissed the DNA and other evidence.
In a December 2009 article in the Arkansas Law Review, David S. Mitchell Jr. examined Burnett's denial of Echols' appeal for a new trial, under a statute passed by the legislature in 2001. That law provided a way for persons convicted of a crime to bring before a court new evidence produced by testing methods that were not available at the time of his trial.
Mitchell wrote that Burnett's interpretation of the statute “eviscerated its purpose” and thereby “failed to meet the Arkansas Legislature's goal of accounting for the ability of new technology to accomplish the mission of criminal law — to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent.”
It would seem the High Court agrees, ruling that the DNA evidence must be considered and delivering a stern rebuke to Burnett.
Echols' attorneys called Thursday's decision a "landmark victory" and praised the high court for allowing Echols to pursue his claims of innocence. Prosecutors sought to limit what evidence could be introduced under the state's DNA law, which the Legislature passed in 2001 to give inmates an avenue to pursue exoneration.
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The Supreme Court rebuked Circuit Court Judge David Burnett for not holding a hearing on the DNA evidence before rejecting Echols' request for a new trial in 2008. Burnett had ruled that the crime-scene DNA evidence - which shows no trace of Echols or the two other men convicted of the murders - was legally inconclusive and not enough to prove innocence.
"While there is a significant dispute in this case as to the legal effects of the DNA test results, it is undisputed that the results conclusively excluded Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as the source of the DNA evidence tested," the court wrote Thursday.
The High Court also weighed in on the issue of possible juror misconduct.
In a surprise move, Chief Supreme Court Justice Jim Hannah wrote that the issue of jury bias also can be considered.
Legal observers predicted the high court would stay clear of the issue of jury misconduct because jury deliberations are considered secret.
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That evidence was the confession of Misskelley, who has been described as borderline mentally retarded. Misskelley was interrogated for 12 hours and later recanted and refused to testify against Echols and Baldwin.
Reece, a former Arkansas Supreme Court law clerk, said the jury misconduct issue alone should be enough for a Circuit Court judge to grant a new trial.
That was certainly my reaction when I read about jury foreman Kent Arnold's active advocacy for prosecution based on excluded evidence. The account of attorney Lloyd Warford, whom Arnold had retained to defend his brother in a sexual molestation case, describes a juror who used passive deception to be placed on the jury for a case he'd already made up his mind about. Arnold expressed frustration at the ineptitude of the prosecutors and insisted the excluded confession should be available to jurors. He also dismissed Warford's explanation of false confessions and how they typically occur with mentally handicapped defendants. He used his role as foreman to do the job he thought the prosecutors were failing so miserably at; convincing the jury to convict.
As prosecutors continued with their case, jurors realized they didn't have fingerprints, hairs, blood, semen or saliva linking the defendants to the crime.
Warford said: "Eventually, Kent said this prosecutor has not done his job and that if the prosecution didn't come up with something powerful the next day, there was probably going to be an acquittal."
Arnold vowed: "If anyone is going to convince this jury to convict, it is going to have to be me."
Arnold asked Warford for tips on swaying a jury. When Warford told Arnold he couldn't discuss that, Arnold quipped: "What if I pay you to tell what I need to say to get this guy?"
The role of the jury foreman is yet another example of the glaring failure of jurisprudence that took place in West Memphis, AK. Let's hope this marks the turning of the tide and that some sort of justice will finally be done.
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