The Arkansas Supreme Court building Benjamin Hardy

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday reversed and remanded a Crittenden County Circuit Court’s denial of a request by Damien Echols for further DNA testing of evidence from the West Memphis Three case.

The 4-3 decision, authored by Justice Karen Baker, turned on the court’s interpretation of a 2001 law that allows someone “convicted of a crime” to file a petition to vacate and set aside a judgment if the person claims “scientific evidence, not available at the time of trial, establishes the petitioner’s actual innocence.”

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While the West Memphis Three story is well known, a bit of background is useful here to clarify the procedural issues addressed in the decision.

The bodies of three 8-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch, were discovered in a muddy creek behind the Robin Hood Hills neighborhood of West Memphis in May 1993. With “satanic panic” in full swing in Arkansas and the nation, police attention quickly turned to Echols — an 18-year-old high-school dropout who liked heavy metal music.

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West Memphis police extracted a questionable confession from Jessie Misskelley Jr., a 16-year-old with an IQ of 72, that implicated Echols and 17-year-old Jason Baldwin. Prosecutors then charged the three teenagers with three counts each of capital murder. Misskelley was tried separately, convicted, and (because he was a minor at the time of the murders) sentenced to life in February 1994. Baldwin and Echols were tried together the following month and convicted. Baldwin, also a minor at the time of the murders, was sentenced to life while Echols received the death penalty.

Years of attempts to prove the innocence of the West Memphis Three followed. Ultimately, in 2010, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed and remanded a lower court decision that denied Echols’ motion for a new trial based on DNA evidence. But before a hearing on Echols’ petition could be heard, the three men in 2011 reached an agreement with prosecutors that would free them from jail.

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Each defendant entered an “Alford plea,” a legal mechanism that allows a person to maintain his innocence while acknowledging the state has enough evidence that a jury could possibly convict him if the matter went to trial. As part of their Alford pleas, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to time served plus an additional ten years’ suspended sentence and were released from prison.

Starting in 2020, Echols began communicating with Scott Ellington, the prosecuting attorney for the judicial district that includes Crittenden County. Echols discussed the possibility of performing additional DNA testing on evidence from the case using a newly developed “wet-vacuum based” collection method using a device called an M-Vac. By 2021, Keith Chrestman had replaced Ellington as prosecutor, and he said Echols would have to petition the court for permission to do the DNA testing.

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In January 2022, Echols filed a petition pursuant to Act 1780 of 2001, the Arkansas statute on DNA and other testing. Specifically, he sought M-Vac testing of ligatures used to bind the murder victims. He argued the ligatures had produced useful DNA evidence in earlier testing and that more precise testing now might serve to identify the true killers. The state responded that Echols was not entitled to relief because he is no longer incarcerated, though Echols pointed out Act 1780 did not require a person to be in prison before in order to petition the court for testing.

The circuit court agreed with the state and denied Echols’ petition. It found that Echols was not entitled to relief — and that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction to hear the petition — because Echols was not in custody.

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In reversing the circuit court’s decision today, the Supreme Court answered an important procedural question when they held that entering an Alford plea did not prevent a person from filing a petition under Act 1780.

A petition for relief under Act 1780 is treated as a petition for habeas corpus, the court said, and habeas corpus petitions have traditionally not been allowed when a person pleads guilty. However, the court explained, an Alford plea is not a standard guilty plea, since it does not require an admission of guilt. Accordingly, Echols was not barred from seeking relief simply because of his plea agreement.

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Turning to the merits of the appeal, the Supreme Court held the circuit court erred in its reading of Act 1780. The justices agreed with Echols’ argument that the statute does not require a petitioner to be in custody at the time of the petition and allows any “person convicted of a crime” to seek relief through DNA testing.

The majority’s opinion says:

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.

Based on this, the Supreme Court found the circuit court’s interpretation of Act 1780 to be incorrect, reversed the denial of Echols’ petition, and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings.

Justice Barabra Webb, joined by Justice Shawn Womack and Special Justice Marcia Hearnsberger, dissented. Webb argued the DNA testing Echols seeks would not prove his actual innocence, because:

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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.

Therefore, according to the dissent, “the majority’s decision obliterates any sense of finality in our criminal justice system.”

Rather than addressing the majority’s holding, Webb’s dissent focused on the history of habeas corpus prior to Act 1780, concluding that relief under the statute is limited to people currently in custody.

As the majority explained in a footnote, however:

Absent from the dissenting opinion is any regard for the plain language of Arkansas Code Annotated sections 16-112-201 and -202 despite the fact that the language is clear. We have explained that “[t]he courts have no power to legislate or to construe a statute to mean anything other than what it says, if it is plain and unambiguous.” Undeterred by this longstanding precedent, the dissent looks beyond the plain language to the history and purpose underlying traditional habeas corpus relief, as well as the legislative history of Act 1780 as it relates to Illinois law, in support of its position that “the majority has decided to reimagine habeas relief as encompassing any ‘person convicted of a crime’ whether or not they be in State custody.” To the contrary, it was the legislature that elected to permit persons convicted of a crime to seek relief under Act 1780. The legislature imposed no threshold requirement that a person must be in State custody to seek this relief, and we decline to read such a requirement into the statutes.

Though not important as far as the majority’s opinion is concerned, the dissent relies heavily on a mischaracterization of the “evidence” used to convict the West Memphis Three. Echols was not convicted based on DNA specifically because DNA from Echols, Baldwin, or Misskelley was not, and has never been, found at the scene. The dissent’s reference to “information” and “fibers” pretends as if that evidence, on its own, was what led to Echols’ conviction, ignoring since-discredited “expert” testimony offered during the case: testimony about the occult from someone with a mail-order doctorate, the testimony of an unreliable jail-house snitch, and the prosecution’s introduction of a knife that had nothing to do with the case, among other glaring errors.

The dissent also wildly overstates the fallout the majority’s opinion will have. It claims the decision “opens the doors for thousands of individuals to file Act 1780 petitions, inundating our courts and exposing the State to significant financial strain if it is to pay for scientific testing for any person ever convicted of a crime.”

In fact, the statute only allows testing where the scientific evidence was “not available at trial” or, if the facts would establish the petition’s innocence by clear and convincing evidence, where the “scientific predicate for the claim could not have been previously discovered through the exercise of due diligence.” The dissent ignores this additional hurdle and disingenuously pretends as if any person convicted of any crime can now demand DNA testing.

With the case remanded to the Crittenden County Circuit Court, Echols should get the DNA testing he requested. Since an admission that the West Memphis Three are innocent would likely cost the state millions in a wrongful conviction lawsuit, however, it seems likely the state will continue to fight Echols’ efforts to clear his name to the bitter end.