JONESBORO A lawyer in 1994 for one of three youths accused of killing three West Memphis 8-year-olds says the judge who presided over his client's trial - and is now presiding over a hearing on a request for a new trial - had an improper communication with the jury that returned a conviction.
Dan Stidham of Paragould testified Tuesday at a hearing before Circuit Judge David Burnett, on a request by former client Jessie Misskelley for a new trial. Misskelley is claiming inadequate representation at his original trial.
Misskelley and two others - Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols - were convicted in the boys' deaths. Baldwin is also seeking a new trial, and a request by Echols for a new trial was rejected last month.
Misskelley, Baldwin and Echols were convicted of the May 5, 1993, slayings of second-graders Michael Moore, Steven Branch and Christopher Byers. The boys' bodies were found the next day in a water-filled ditch near their West Memphis homes, with their hands and feet bound by their shoestrings.
Tuesday's testimony from Stidham, now a Greene County district judge, supported Misskelley's claim of inadequate representation before and during his trial. Stidham said he was too inexperienced in 1994 to represent his client properly.
"I had very limited felony-trial experience before the Misskelley trial," Stidham testified.
He said he had been involved in only one felony trial of any sort before being appointed to defend Misskelley on a capital murder charge.
Stidham said he did not meet the minimum requirements in state law to represent a defendant in a capital murder case. Asked by Michael Burt, Misskelley's current lawyer, if he was qualified to handle a capital murder case at the time, Stidham responded: "Clearly not."
He said law partner Greg Crow had even less experience. Crow testified Monday he had never tried a felony case before being appointed to defend Misskelley.
He also said his defense efforts were hampered because he did not have enough money to hire expert witnesses to testify at the trial. "My Visa Gold card literally financed the defense," Stidham said.
In Burnett's court Tuesday, Stidham claimed the judge committed error when, as the jury was deliberating, he opened the jury room door and asked the foreman if the group needed lunch. Stidham said the jury foreman told Burnett they were about finished, to which Burnett responded: "You'll need food for when you come back for sentencing."
Stidham said the foreman asked what would happen if Misskelley were found not guilty, and Burnett shut the door without answering.
Stidham said he did not make a record of the statement because he thought at the time that his client was about to be acquitted. When he was convicted instead, Stidham said, he was shocked and did not think about putting the incident on the court record for appeal purposes.
"I was not qualified for this case," Stidham insisted.
Stidham said his client first told him - as he did the police - that he had been involved in the slayings, but later recanted both statements. According to Stidham, Misskelley told him eventually that, at the outset, the teenager thought Stidham was a police investigator.
"Mr. Misskelley said the West Memphis police had threatened him with the electric chair, and he was very, very afraid of the electric chair," Stidham said.
He said Misskelley's words were: "'I thought you were the police, and I didn't want to die in that electric chair."'
For more information see Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.