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Fate of 2 in hands of jurors

State rules out using pendant

By The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

This article was published March 18, 1994 at 6:00 a.m.

— The capital murder trial of two teen-agers accused of killing three 8-year-old boys went to the jury Thursday evening after prosecutors decided to withhold last-minute evidence that could have resulted in a mistrial for one defendant.

The jury of eight women and four men began deliberating about 5 p.m. The trial of Damien Wayne Echols, 19, of West Memphis and Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, of Marionhad 11 days of testimony.

While prosecutors said circumstantial evidence and Echols' alleged cult activities linked the defendants to the crimes, defense attorneys claimed West Memphis police focused on the two after becoming desperate that no one had been arrested in the month after the bodies were found.

"You've got defendants looking like choir boys during the trial," Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman said during his closing statement. "This murder had the trappings of an occult murder, a satanic murder."

Pointing to Echols, Fogleman said, "There's not a soul in there."

Prosecutors charged Echols and Baldwin on June 3, 1993, in the deaths of West Memphis second-graders Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steven Branch.

A third co-defendant in the case, Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr., 18, of Marion, never testified against his friends. A Clay County jury convicted Misskelley of first- and second-degree murder in the case. He is serving a sentence of life in prison, plus 40 years.

"What type of person could turn these 8-year-old boys into the mutilated persons you saw photographs of?" asked Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis of Jonesboro. "What kind of person who could do that is at the heart of this case."

The boys were last seen alive sometime after 6 p.m. May 5, 1993. Searchers found their bound, nude bodies the next day in a ditch in a patch of woods known as Robin Hood Hill.

All three had been beaten. One had cuts to his face and another had been sexually mutilated.

"There couldn't be a worst capital murder committed in this state that I'm aware of," Davis said.

Davis argued that Echols and Baldwin were linked through their close friendship, recalling that a cult expert said one person often dominates a small group.

In a hearing out of the jury's presence Thursday morning, Davis confirmed that investigators sent a pendant to a genetics testing laboratory last week after noticing it had spots that looked like blood.

West Memphis police seized the necklace from Echols upon his arrest.

DNA tests found two blood factors. One matched those found in Echols' blood. The second factor matched factors found in Baldwin's blood as well as that of Steven Branch.

Davis explained that Fogleman and investigators were reviewing evidence March 10 when they discovered the pendant. It was sent to the state Crime Laboratory, which confirmed the spot was blood. The lab forwarded it to Genetic Design of Greensboro, N.C., for further testing.

"On Tuesday afternoon ... we received a call from Genetic Design which indicated they had been able to isolate two separate DNA sources," Davis said.

Additional testing was inconclusive, he said. He said the factor found in Baldwin's and Steven's blood is found in 11 percent of the population.

One of Echols' attorneys, Val Price of Jonesboro, argued the evidence would create "prejudice, confusion and a waste of time."

Price said he'd have to reopen his defense to find an expert to evaluate the test.

Burnett gave no indication of how he would rule in open court. He said the options were for a mistrial or continuance.

After a brief recess, Davis told Burnett that he decided to withdraw the evidence rather than risk a mistrial or continuance.

During closing arguments, Echols looked intently at whichever attorney was speaking. Baldwin seemed less intent, appearing to listen to defense arguments but often looking around the room or at the floor when prosecutors spoke.

Davis said jurors should examine Echols' belief system and his writings, which include spells, incantations, heavy metal lyrics and poems about blood, good and evil. They also should take note of witnesses who placed him near the crime scene the night of May 5, fibers found on the bodies similar to a shirt seized from Echols' home and testimony from two girls who said they overhead him brag about the crimes, Davis said.

Baldwin is linked by a fiber found on a victim's shirt similar to a red bathrobe seized from Baldwin's home, as well as a jailmate who testified Baldwin told him that he `'sucked the blood" of a victim.

In the first of two closing statements by prosecutors, Fogleman disputed defense attorneys' claims that there were too many coincidences to discredit evidence collected against Echols and Baldwin.

Fogleman said Echols and Baldwin are clearly linked to the crime by fiber evidence, by testimony they each told someone they killed the boys and by a survival knife found in a pond behind Baldwin's home that is similar to one once owned by Echols.

"A lot of the defense has been what I call smoke," Fogleman said.

Price and one of Baldwin's attorneys, Paul N. Ford of West Memphis, argued that prosecutors and investigators ineptly investigated the case.

Price focused on reasonable doubt, noting the existence of other potential suspects, such as the stepfather of a victim who had a knife that had blood on it similar to his and his son's blood, as well as a "bloody black man" who appeared at a West Memphis restaurant the night of the slayings.

"What else is there, a tennis shoe print?" said Price. "My client wears black boots. That's reasonable doubt."

Price said none of the items that police used to connect Echols to cult activities was legitimate cult items.

"It's still all right in America to have weird things in your room," Price said.

Ford attacked state witnesses, noting that many refused to make the connections about weapons, fibers and time of deaths sought by prosecutors.

"Witnesses won't tell you that, but prosecutors want you to believe it," Ford said. "Was there any evidence to dispute Jason Baldwin was at home? No."

Ford said West Memphis police staged photos taken at the crime scene, as well as lost their credibility about minor things such as why paper bags used to hold muddy, wet evidence showed no water stains.

He attacked the credibility of a 16-year-old Jonesboro teen-ager who said Baldwin admitted to the crimes while the two were in jail.

"Michael Carson is 16 years old and already has two felony convictions," for stealing cars and guns as well as vandalizing a home. "But boy, he's got a soft heart" to step forward and testify, Ford said.

"All I want is the truth," said Echols' father, Eddie Joe Hutchison. He said the defense did a "damn good job."

"Our lives will never be the same," Hutchison said. He said West Memphis detective Bryn Ridge shook his hand, saying he didn't want it to become personal.

As he waited for the jury, Echols got a chance to hold his 6-month-old son, Seth Azeriah Teer.

"It feels great," Echols said.

Domini Teer, Seth's mother, said she was surprised the baby didn't cry Thursday when Echols held him for the first time.

"I wish I could go over there and hold him with him," she said.

Byers indicated with a nod after the jury went out that he believed the prosecution had effectively presented its case.

Pamela Hobbs, Steven Branch's mother, agreed.

"I'm just waiting for those 12 people to come back and make me a happy woman," Hobbs said.

Other members of the victims' families said they would have no comment until the jury returns verdicts.

Burnett said he will let the jury work into the night as long as they believe they are making progress.

State reporter Mike Trimble and Jonesboro Bureau Chief Larry Young contributed to this report.






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