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State justices refuse to reopen conviction of Echols

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    State justices refuse to reopen conviction of Echols BY LINDA SATTER ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE Without addressing the merits of a petition seeking to throw out
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 22, 2005
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      State justices refuse to reopen conviction of Echols
      BY LINDA SATTER
      ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

      Without addressing the merits of a petition seeking to throw out the
      conviction and death sentence of Damien Wayne Echols, the Arkansas
      Supreme Court refused Thursday to reopen the case in state court.
      But the ruling clears the way for a federal court in Little Rock to
      closely examine whether jurors in Echols? and Jason Baldwin?s 1994
      trial
      illegally considered prejudicial information that they learned
      outside
      the courtroom and whether some jurors were biased against Echols.
      Echols, now 30, and Baldwin, now 27, were tried together in
      Craighead
      County in the deaths of three 8-year-old West Memphis boys whose
      nude
      bodies were found in May 1993 in a Crittenden County creek. A third
      defendant, Jessie Misskelley, was tried separately in Clay County a
      short time before Echols? and Baldwin?s trial.
      Both trials were moved out of Crittenden County because of
      publicity,
      which included rumors of devil worship stemming from the fact that
      one
      of the victims was castrated.
      All three defendants were convicted of three counts of capital
      murder,
      with Baldwin and Misskelley sentenced to life without parole.
      On Oct. 28, San Francisco attorney Dennis Riordan filed petitions in
      state and federal court in Little Rock raising the new allegations
      of
      juror misconduct. He said the allegations stemmed from recent
      confessions of jurors in Echols? and Baldwin?s trial.
      According to Riordan, the jurors have said that during deliberations
      they made lists of reasons to convict or acquit the two men, and
      among
      the reasons they listed in favor of conviction was a statement that
      Misskelley gave to investigators implicating himself, Echols and
      Baldwin.
      The statement, however, was not admitted into evidence in Echols?
      and
      Baldwin?s trial, and therefore was not to be considered during
      deliberations.
      Riordan also alleges that during jury selection, none of the people
      who
      were ultimately seated on the panel admitted to being aware that
      Misskelley had given a statement or that he had implicated the other
      defen- dants.
      The petition further says that the foreman of Echols? and Baldwin?s
      jury
      now admits that he lied during jury selection when asked if he had
      heard
      many news reports on the Misskelley case. The foreman now admits
      that he
      had "an extensive familiarity" with news reports of the Misskelley
      trial, particularly reports containing incriminating details about
      Echols and Baldwin, Riordan says.
      In addition, another juror reportedly now says that he knew details
      of
      the case before the trial began, leading him to fear supporters of
      Echols and Baldwin.
      In refusing Thursday to recall its final orders of November 2003 and
      December 2003, which denied Echols? requests for a new trial based
      on
      trial errors and ineffective assistance of counsel, the Arkansas
      Supreme
      Court said it lacked jurisdiction and that Echols should have raised
      the
      juror allegations in a more timely manner.
      The high court initially upheld the convictions in 1996, and in 1997
      the
      U.S. Supreme Court refused to revisit the state court?s decision.
      Riordan referred to Thursday?s decision as "procedural," leaving it
      up
      to a federal court to review the factual issues in dispute.
      "If the state decides the facts, it is entitled to deference from
      federal court," Riordan said. But if the state court doesn?t examine
      the
      issues, "the federal court will have to address the facts" on its
      own.
      While the state could say it won Thursday on a "procedural" basis,
      Riordan said, the "downside [for the state] is the federal courts
      are
      now empowered to examine this case much more closely."
      Riordan said that while he is confident he could have proved his
      assertions in state court, the state?s rejection "makes it more
      likely
      that evidentiary proceedings will be held in federal court, and in a
      lot
      of cases, that?s an advantage."
      Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Beebe, agreed
      that
      Thursday?s ruling doesn?t address the merits of Riordan?s petition.
      DeCample said attorneys in his office don?t think the ruling will
      have
      any effect on the federal case, however.
      On Dec. 29, U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry L. Jones extended the state?
      s
      deadline to respond to Riordan?s petition until Feb. 28.
      Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson Jr. will decide the case.
      In Thursday?s opinion, written by Associate Justice Tom Glaze and
      joined
      by Associate Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber, the Supreme court
      seemed
      troubled by the sluggishness of DNA testing on materials found at
      the
      crime scene.
      "Although Echols first filed his motion for DNA testing in September
      2002, the motion is still pending in the circuit court, and the
      proceeding has remained unresolved since that time," the opinion
      says.
      Riordan said he was surprised to read that the justices are not
      aware
      that DNA tests actually are under way at a private laboratory in
      California.
      Since DNA testing wasn?t readily available at the time of the
      trials,
      Riordan now wants items that were found at the scene, such as hair
      and
      miscellaneous objects, to be tested.
      "There is a lot of material that needs to be tested," he said. He
      said
      that although "an enormous amount of work has been done on the DNA
      testing in the last couple of years," the process has been slowed by
      the
      need to categorize items and get stipulations from both sides
      whenever a
      test has the potential to destroy a piece of evidence.
      The case is Damien Echols v. State of Arkansas.

      This story was published Friday, January 21, 2005
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