Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Echols May Pursue Innocence Claim

In the high-profile criminal case involving one of the "Memphis Three," the Arkansas Supreme Court has held that Damien Echols may pursue DNA exonoration notwithstanding his release from custody and Alford plea

Here, the plain language in sections 16-112-201 and -202 unambiguously permits “a person convicted of a crime” to petition for additional DNA testing to demonstrate the person’s actual innocence pursuant to Act 1780. This language imposes no requirement that a petitioner must be in State custody to seek relief pursuant to Act 1780, and we decline to read such a requirement into the statutes. The circuit court and the State employ reasoning that hinges on the legislative history and purpose underlying Act 1780 and our common-law interpretations of traditional habeas relief; however, resorting to these tools of statutory construction is unnecessary in the present case given the clear language of Act 1780. It is undisputed that Echols has been convicted of a crime, and as a result, he is entitled to seek relief pursuant to Act 1780. This reading of the plain language of sections 16-112-201 and -202 is consistent with the plain language of section 16-112-103, as it is clear that “any person . . . who has alleged actual innocence of the offense or offenses for which the person was convicted” is entitled to petition for a writ of habeas corpus. See Ark. Code Ann. § 16-112-103(a)(1). Moreover, section 16-112-103(a)(2) directs such a person to pursue a writ on this basis in accordance with the procedures set forth in “§ 16-112-201 et seq.[,]” a separate subchapter that codified Act 1780. Therefore, we conclude that the circuit court misinterpreted the plain language of Act 1780 and, as a result, clearly erred when it dismissed Echols’s Act 1780 petition on the grounds that he was not in State custody at the time it was filed. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.

BARBARA W. WEBB, Justice, dissenting.

The majority’s decision obliterates any sense of finality in our criminal justice system. Their interpretation of Act 1780 means anyone who has ever been convicted of a crime––whether or not they be in State custody––can seek DNA or other scientific testing even if such testing would not prove that individual’s innocence. That is the case here. Echols’s first conviction did not rely on DNA evidence. Rather, the jury was presented with evidence that Echols knew facts about the case that were not public knowledge; fibers found on the victims’ clothes were microscopically similar to clothing found in Echols’s home; multiple witnesses testified that Echols confessed to the murders; and multiple witnesses placed him near the crime scene at the time of the murders. DNA testing therefore cannot prove Echols’s innocence. For the reasons set forth below, I would hold that the circuit court correctly found that Echols is not entitled to habeas relief. I dissent.

(Mike Frisch)


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