The story of the "West Memphis Three," whose decades-long murder case was the source for a noted documentary trilogy, is scheduled to return to court Thursday with attorneys for one of the three men seeking access to evidence they want tested anew for DNA.
Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were convicted in 1994 for the particularly brutal murder of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas, a year earlier.
The men were released from prison in 2011 after signing Alford pleas, in which they maintained their innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors have evidence to convict them. As part of a plea deal, they were given time served as their sentences.
In 1993, the bodies of Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore -- all 8 years old -- had been left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces. Prosecutors argued the defendants, who were teenagers, were driven by satanic ritual and that Echols had been the ringleader.
This January, Echols' attorneys filed the petition for new DNA testing, saying it "might serve to identify the killer(s)" and bring justice to the case. Echols' petition asks the judge to approve testing done with an M-Vac wet vacuum system. Such testing was not available previous times the evidence was tested.
Keith Chrestman, the prosecuting attorney for the 2nd Judicial District of Arkansas, argued in a court document that finding someone else's DNA on the evidence would not prove Echols innocent given other evidence shown in trial.
Chrestman also argued the new technology, "rather than preserving physical evidence -- (it) is a one-shot deal that forever alters it."
On the M-Vac website, the company says: "It is a sterile wet-vacuum. Collection solution is sprayed onto the surface while simultaneously being vacuumed off of the surface." DNA material is collected in a bottle.
Baldwin and Misskelley are not party to the petition.
"If (Echols') request is granted and the physical evidence is tested, the remaining defendants could be prejudiced," the prosecutor argued. "If the testing reveals nothing worthwhile, the physical evidence would still be forever altered. And -- with neither notice nor an opportunity to be heard -- the remaining defendants would be denied future Act 1780 habeas corpus relief."
No prior DNA links to the suspects
DNA tested between December 2005 and September 2007 failed to link the men to the crime, and the state Supreme Court ruled in November 2010 that all three could present new evidence to the trial court in an effort to clear them, something pre-empted by the plea deals.
The material included hair from a ligature used to bind Moore and a hair recovered from a tree stump near where the bodies were found, court documents said.
The hair found in the ligature was consistent with Branch's stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while the hair found on the tree stump was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs', according to the documents.
Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect and he maintains that he had nothing to do with the murders.
Three witnesses who resided next to one of the victims filed affidavits in October 2009 with the Arkansas Supreme Court saying they saw the second-graders with Terry Hobbs the night before the bodies were found by police.
The statement from the witnesses contradicted Hobbs' statements to police and in court that he never saw his stepson, Steve, on the day of the murder.
Prosecutors said at trial punctures and cut marks on the victims showed the crimes were part of a sadistic ritual. After the three were convicted, some forensic examiners argued those marks were from animal bites.
The prosecution relied on the confession of Misskelley, a 17-year-old with learning disabilities and an IQ of 70. He confessed after an untaped, three-hour interrogation by police without his parents or an attorney present. Misskelley, who was tried separately, later recanted his confession.
Members of the three said they were suspects because they were different
Echols and Baldwin said that at the time, they were targeted for being different from the rest of their peers in the small town where they lived. They read different books, wore different clothes and had different haircuts.
"The evidence against us was our personal preferences in music," Baldwin said. "I remember at one point during the trial, they lifted up a record, a Blue Oyster Cult record, and I think (prosecutor) John Fogleman said this was found in Damien's girlfriend's mother's house."
Critics of the case against the men argued that no direct evidence tied them to the killings, and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused the boys' wounds.
The killings were the subject of the "Paradise Lost" documentary trilogy. The films, released in 1996, 2004 and 2011, raised questions about the evidence, drawing attention from musicians including Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits and Henry Rollins, who pushed for a review of the case.
The third film was nominated for an Academy Award.