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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Paradise Found?: Defense Counsel Presents Newly Discovered Evidence in West Memphis 3 Case

In 1994, three Arkansas teenagers, now known as the West Memphis 3, were convicted of murdering three 8 year-old boys, allegedly as part of a satanic sacrifice involing binding the children with shoelaces, sexual abuse, and genital mutilation.  They were convicted despite the complete absence of any physical evidence linking them to the murders

Instead, the centerpiece of the prosecution's case was the videotaped confession of Jessie Misskelley, one of the West Memphis 3.  Misskelley, however, is mildly retarded, only gave his confession after hours of questioning (and prodding), and was incorrect on several significant details, including the time of the crime, the way the victims were tied, and the manner of death. 

If this case sounds familiar, it is probably because it was detailed in the award-winning HBO documentaries "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Lost 2."  Many people watching the documentaries (including Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder) doubted the guilt of the West Memphis 3 after watching the docs, with most speculating that the murders might have been committed by the stepfather of Christopher Byers, the most mutilated of three victims.  This was because the stepfather had a criminal past, gave the filmmakers a bloody knife, and gave messianic speeches on camera.

Now, in the wake of those documentaries and rigorous investigations, defense counsel for Misskelley and the other two defendants, Jason Baldwin and Damien W. Echols, has presented some fascinating evidence to a federal court.  The highlights include:

     -evidence from forensic experts, including the former medical examiner for New York City, that the mutilation of the victims, including one act of castration, was caused by animals, not humans;

     -a forensic report indicating that a hair found in one of the knots binding the victims belonged neither to a member of the West Memphis 3, nor to Byers' stepfather, but instead (likely) to the stepfather of one of the other victims; and

     -evidence that jurors (a) heard about Misskelley's confession before trial, (b) lied about hearing the confession during jury selection, and (c) relied upon the confession in convicting Baldwin and Echols even though the confession was inadmissible against them.

It will certainly be interesting to learn more about the evidence that has been presented and whether it will lead to the West Memphis 3 being freed.  I will say that based upon the brief descriptions of the evidence that have been given, at least Baldwin and Echols have a good case.  Under Arkansas Rule of Evidence 606(b), jurors can testify about "extraneous prejudicial information" being brought to the jury's attention.  Then, if the court determines that the defandant was unduly prejudiced by the evidence, his conviction must be reversed. 

Certainly, Misskelley's confession was extraneous prejudicial information received by the jury, and in the absence of any physical evidence against the other two defendants, it seems clear that they were convicted as a result of this improperly received information.

-CM

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