State justices refuse to reopen conviction of Echols
- State justices refuse to reopen conviction of Echols
BY LINDA SATTER
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
illegally considered prejudicial information that they learned
the courtroom and whether some jurors were biased against Echols.
Echols, now 30, and Baldwin, now 27, were tried together in
County in the deaths of three 8-year-old West Memphis boys whose
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
which included rumors of devil worship stemming from the fact that
of the victims was castrated.
All three defendants were convicted of three counts of capital
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
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
the reasons they listed in favor of conviction was a statement that
Misskelley gave to investigators implicating himself, Echols and
The statement, however, was not admitted into evidence in Echols?
Baldwin?s trial, and therefore was not to be considered during
Riordan also alleges that during jury selection, none of the people
were ultimately seated on the panel admitted to being aware that
Misskelley had given a statement or that he had implicated the other
The petition further says that the foreman of Echols? and Baldwin?s
now admits that he lied during jury selection when asked if he had
many news reports on the Misskelley case. The foreman now admits
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
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
trial errors and ineffective assistance of counsel, the Arkansas
Court said it lacked jurisdiction and that Echols should have raised
juror allegations in a more timely manner.
The high court initially upheld the convictions in 1996, and in 1997
U.S. Supreme Court refused to revisit the state court?s decision.
Riordan referred to Thursday?s decision as "procedural," leaving it
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
issues, "the federal court will have to address the facts" on its
While the state could say it won Thursday on a "procedural" basis,
Riordan said, the "downside [for the state] is the federal courts
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
that evidentiary proceedings will be held in federal court, and in a
of cases, that?s an advantage."
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Attorney General Mike Beebe, agreed
Thursday?s ruling doesn?t address the merits of Riordan?s petition.
DeCample said attorneys in his office don?t think the ruling will
any effect on the federal case, however.
On Dec. 29, U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry L. Jones extended the state?
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
by Associate Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber, the Supreme court
troubled by the sluggishness of DNA testing on materials found at
"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
Riordan said he was surprised to read that the justices are not
that DNA tests actually are under way at a private laboratory in
Since DNA testing wasn?t readily available at the time of the
Riordan now wants items that were found at the scene, such as hair
miscellaneous objects, to be tested.
"There is a lot of material that needs to be tested," he said. He
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
need to categorize items and get stipulations from both sides
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