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Arguments conclude in 'West Memphis Three' appeals

By The Associated Press

This article was originally published October 2, 2009 at 5:42 p.m. Updated October 2, 2009 at 6:18 p.m.

It took more than a year for two men convicted of killing three West Memphis boys in 1993 to complete their arguments for a new trial over the supposed satanic sex ritual slayings.

Now, the appeals by Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. likely will continue to slog through the courts, even after lawyers on Friday finished telling the original judge in the case that the men received inadequate legal help at their 1994 trials.

Retired Craighead County Circuit Judge David Burnett must weigh the arguments by Baldwin and Misskelley and likely will decide in the next two months whether their claims have merit. But even if the openly skeptical judge dismisses the men's appeals, the case will head to the state Supreme Court with an appeal by alleged ringleader Damien Echols.

Juries convicted the three men in the deaths of 8-year-olds Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. The three boys disappeared from their quiet, tree-lined neighborhood in 1993. Police found their beaten bodies, hogtied by shoelaces, in a water-filled ditch a day later.

Misskelley later told detectives he watched Baldwin and Echols sexually assault and beat two of the boys and he ran down another boy trying to escape. Defense lawyers later claimed police bullied Misskelley, who has a low IQ, into incriminating himself and the others.

A jury gave Misskelley, now 34, a life-plus-40-year sentence for the killings. Baldwin, now 32, received a life sentence without parole from a different jury. Echols, now 34, was sentenced to death.

Since the killings, documentaries about the case have sparked interest in the men known as the "West Memphis Three," and supporters have raised about $1 million to hire new lawyers and conduct DNA tests. Echols filed an appeal in federal court, claiming DNA evidence on items tested showed no trace of the three men. The appeal also claims animals caused wounds to one of the boys' genitals. Prosecutors claimed the killers sexually mutilated the boy in a satanic ritual.

A federal judge ordered Echols to present the appeal in state court. Burnett dismissed Echols' claims and the death-row inmate later appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Friday, Misskelley and Baldwin sat impassively as state medical examiner Frank Peretti testified about the boy whose body was mutilated. Peretti, who performed the boy's autopsy in 1993, dismissed defense claims that animals caused the mutilation as "ridiculous."

"The issue was at first, I was criticized for missing human bite marks. And now, they're saying, 'No, no, no. They weren't human bite marks, they're animal marks," Peretti said. "I'm just kind of annoyed with that. It wasn't human or animal."

Instead, Peretti said an instrument like a survival knife found in a pond near Baldwin's home could have been used to make the cuts. Assistant state attorney general Kent Holt pulled the large black knife from a battered cardboard box, its serrated edge still sharp, and put it against a screen showing a gruesome autopsy photo. Peretti looked at it and said some of the marks found in the photograph could have come from the knife's serrated edge.

On cross-examination, defense lawyer John Philipsborn asked why Peretti never became board certified and hinted that Baldwin's defense team in 1994 failed to properly examine all the physical evidence sent to the state Crime Laboratory. Peretti became visibly upset after Philipsborn read testimony by former Baldwin lawyer Paul Ford, who claimed Peretti once said some of the wounds could have been turtle bites.

"No and that's a lie," Peretti said. "I would have never said it was turtle bites because it's not turtle bites. That's a blatant lie."

Michael Burt, a lawyer for Misskelley, repeatedly asked Peretti whether he could say certain bruises indicated the boys' killers tried to force them into a sex act. Peretti responded by saying the sight of the boys naked and hogtied "suggested sexual assault," but acknowledged a good defense lawyer would have challenged his view. He acknowledged he viewed some of the defense experts' claims as "personal attacks" against him.

"Just because you write a book and have a TV show doesn't mean you're right," Peretti said. "I was there. I did the autopsies. I was able to prod and probe and look at everything."

William Sturner, who retired as Arkansas' chief medical examiner in 2004, confirmed Peretti's findings in his testimony.

But the lawyers in the case know Burnett's decision represents only the next stop in the men's ongoing appeals. Bobby McDaniel, father of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, stopped by the courtroom during a lunch recess to talk to prosecutors.

"The question is: Will this ever end?" McDaniel asked them.

For now, it won't.

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