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Cut himself with knife, father says

By The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

This article was published March 12, 1994 at 6:00 a.m.

— A murder victim's stepfather testified Friday that he cut himself with a folding knife that defense attorneys argued could inflict wounds similar to those found on three 8-year-olds killed last May.

John Mark Byers, 37, of West Memphis, testified he sliced his thumb while cutting venison with his Kershaw knife around Thanksgiving.

Previous testimony in the capital murder trial of two teen-agers showed that blood found on the knife had DNA factors similar to those found in Byers' blood and that of his adopted son, Christopher.

Friday, defense attorneys for one defendant, Damien Wayne Echols, 19, called Byers and a former West Memphis restaurant worker to bolster their claims that someone else could have killed Christopher, Michael Moore and Steve Branch.

They also called a Virginia criminal justice expert who wrote a book contending that police too often label crimes as cult-related. The expert was called to counter a state witness who said the May killings had "the trappings of the occult."

Testimony in the capital murder trial of Echols of West Memphis and Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, of Marion entered its ninth day Friday. Circuit Judge David Burnett of Osceola said he expects the trial to end next week.

The 8-year-old boys were reported missing May 5. Their nude bodies were found May 6 bound hand and foot submerged in a ditch near their homes off Interstate 40.

Echols' attorney, Val P. Price of Jonesboro, showed Byers a copy of a statement he gave West Memphis police inspector Gary Gitchell on Jan. 26 after tests showed blood on the knife had a factor common to both Byers and his stepson.

In the Jan. 26 interview, Byers said he "had no idea" how blood got on the knife. He also told Gitchell, "I don't even remember nicking myself."

On Friday, Byers testified that he thought Gitchell was only talking about Christopher. He said he had no way of knowing whether his son played with the knife.

"I was under the assumption he was talking about Chris' blood" at the time, Byers testified.

Byers testified that he became upset when West Memphis detective Bryn Ridge asked him May 19 if he was involved in the crime.

Price asked if Byers recalled Ridge telling Byers he had information that "suggests strongly that you have something to do with the disappearance of the boys and, ultimately, the murders. OK. What is your response to that?"

"It seems like when he asked me that I got very upset and distraught," Byers testified. "He told me he just had to ask that question to get my reaction."

Burnett denied an attempt by Price to question Byers about information he gave police about past drug use, drug arrests, whether he served as a police informant and if he was sexually assaulted as a 19-year-old.

Byers gave the Kershaw knife last year to a documentary film cameraman who was at his home. The cameraman took it to New York City, but it was mailed to West Memphis police in January. It was forwarded to Genetic Design of Greensboro, N.C., for testing.

Michael DeGuglielmo, director of the testing laboratory's forensic analysis section, testified March 3 that he found the blood on the knife contained the same DNA factor, called HLA DQ Alpha 1.1,4, as in Byers' and Chris' blood.

DeGuglielmo noted no other members of the Byers' family had the factor, including Chris' natural mother, Melissa.

In a telephone interview Friday, DeGuglielmo said he did not have enough blood to perform a complete test. The material he found contained only one genetic marker out of thousands.

"It just so happened that the two of them had the same type of marker," DeGuglielmo said. "One out of 11 people have at least one genetic marker of the same type."

After his testimony, Byers told reporters he felt the defense must feel "desperate" to call him to the stand.

He showed reporters a small scar on his thumb where he said he received the cut last November.

Byers denied being involved in the murders.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman of West Memphis said the Byerses are planning to buy a new home. Byers declined to say where, but his wife indicated they were leaving to escape painful memories.

"Would you want to live in a house that your baby died less than three-quarters of a mile from?" Melissa Byers said.

Byers also confirmed that he is being treated for a brain tumor, but declined to provide details.

Also Friday, Price called Robert D. Hicks of Richmond, Va., to challenge a state expert witness who said the killings were cult-related.

Hicks, who advises police departments on policies and procedures, authored a book called "In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult." The book challenged police investigators who call bizarre crimes "satanic."

Hicks testified that he became interested in how police investigate cults when he detected a growing number of experts offering seminars on the topic.

Hicks stressed that religious connotations shouldn't be allowed to control an investigation, although he agreed religious beliefs could play a role.

"The phrase `trappings of the occult' is meaningless," Hicks said.

A cult expert called by the state, retired police Capt. Dale W. Griffis of Tiffin, Ohio, testified Tuesday that he believed the May slayings were tied to the occult.

Hicks dismissed it, saying "a crime is a crime."

"To put the word `cult' in front of it is simply creating a big cloud of smoke," Hicks said.

He said there are no studies that prove the factors cited by Griffis can be linked positively to cult activity. Griffis said a cult killing was indicated because one victim was sexually mutilated, there was a full moon at the time and the crime scene lacked blood.

Hicks said the chance of an occult tie can result in police officers viewing the crime as "a Christian-moral fight."

"Some officers who teach with Griffis maintain that point of view that you have to be spiritually armed when you investigate these offenses," Hicks said. He said that goes beyond what investigators are supposed to do.

"We have no evidence at all to support the idea that there is this big underground cult that kills upwards of 50,000 people a year, which is a figure, by the way, that Dale Griffis has frequently claimed," Hicks said.

Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis of Jonesboro objected to Hicks' testimony as speculation. Hicks acknowledged he didn't know enough about the case to make a firm opinion.

Defense attorneys also called the former manager of the Bojangles Restaurant in West Memphis to talk about a bloodied black man who used the restroom the night the boys disappeared.

Marty L. King of Forrest City testified that a customer complained that a black man covered in blood used the women's restroom about 9:30 p.m.

The Bojangles Restaurant is about three-fourths of a mile from the crime scene.

Defense attorneys are suggesting that the blood-covered man, who was never found, could have committed the crime. They are critical of West Memphis police for not inspecting the bloody restroom May 5 and then losing blood samples taken May 6.

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