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Mistrail rejected; jury shown knife

by The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | March 2, 1994 at 6:00 a.m.

— Circuit Judge David Burnett rejected a mistrial bid Tuesday after a detective mentioned in testimony a police statement by Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr., a co-defendant previously convicted in the slayings of three West Memphis 8-year-olds.

Misskelley's statement wasn't to be used in the capital murder trial of Damien Wayne Echols, 19, of West Memphis, and Charles Jason Baldwin, 16, of Marion.

The statement came up as West Memphis detective Bryn Ridge testified about returning a month later to the site where searchers found the bodies He went after Misskelley spoke to police.

Tuesday was the second day of testimony in the trial of Echols and Baldwin. A jury convicted Misskelley last month, and Burnett of Osceola sentenced him to life in prison for first-degree murder and 40 years on two counts of second-degree murder.

Besides the mistrial motion, jurors got their first glimpse of a knife that may be introduced as evidence and listened as defense attorneys tried to pick apart how West Memphis police investigated the May 5, 1993, deaths of Michael Moore, Steven Branch and Christopher Byers.

Echols' attorney, Val Price of Jonesboro, moved for a mistrial after Ridge testified about evidence collected from where officers found the bodies.

Ridge returned to the crime scene July 1. He said investigators had overlooked a stick, originally found in the ditch with a shirt wrapped around one end, "until the statement of Jessie Misskelley."

Price immediately demanded a mistrial and Burnett ordered the jury to leave the courtroom.

After the jury left, Price argued that Ridge's comment prejudiced the jury against his client. He noted that Misskelley's police statement resulted in Burnett's decision to try him separately.

"This officer blurted out Jessie Misskelley gave a confession," Price said.

Burnett called a mistrial "a harsh remedy."

The judge ruled that Ridge appropriately answered Price's question about why he decided to go back a month after the arrests. But he agreed to tell the jury to disregard Ridge's statement.

"I suggest, gentlemen, there isn't a soul up on that jury or in this courtroom that doesn't know Mr. Misskelley gave a statement," Burnett said. "Now the contents of that statement certainly would be prejudicial."

Police used Misskelley's June 3 statement to pull together enough evidence to arrest the three teen-agers in the deaths. The confession is inadmissible in Echols' and Baldwin's trial unless Misskelley agrees to testify. Negotiations for that testimony continued into Tuesday night.

Burnett has appointed Philip Wells of Jonesboro to meet with Misskelley to give him a "fresh perspective" on what effect his testimony could have on his own case and that of Baldwin and Echols.

"There's no question that the prosecuting attorney's office will benefit from it," Wells said of Misskelley's possible testimony. "But they are not so desperate that they are going to bend over backward and offer Mr. Misskelley an unbelievably sweet deal."

Baldwin's attorney, Paul Ford of West Memphis, objected to Wells playing a role in the case and speaking to the media.

Wells described his role as a "court liaison" to Misskelley. Ford said that could give the perception that Wells spoke on behalf of Burnett.

Burnett later denied that, saying he appointed Wells as a "second counsel" for Misskelley. The judge said the move was not done to criticize Misskelley attorneys Daniel Stidham and Gregory Crow, both of Paragould.

Burnett agreed to ask Wells not to talk to reporters.

Prosecutors called two witnesses to the stand Tuesday.

In the afternoon, Frank J. Peretti of Little Rock, an associate state medical examiner, described autopsy results.

Peretti said all three victims suffered skull fractures and had large cuts and bruises over their bodies.

He showed jurors graphic pictures taken during the autopsies. Peretti said Steven suffered cuts on his face consistent from a knife. Steven's penis also was injured.

Peretti testified that Christopher had been sexually mutilated and beaten. He said Christopher also had been struck after he died.

Both Michael and Steven died from "multiple injuries with drowning," Peretti said, adding they were still alive when placed in the water. He said they would have died from their head injuries.

Peretti didn't give a cause of death for Christopher. During Misskelley's trial, Peretti testified that Christopher died from his injuries.

Prosecuting Attorney Brent Davis of Jonesboro showed Peretti a large survival-type knife with a serrated edge. Peretti said the edge is consistent with some wounds found on the body.

Ridge spent the morning on the stand explaining how he found the victims' pants, shirts, sneakers and underwear in a drainage ditch leading to Ten Mile Bayou in West Memphis. The drainage channel is near Robin Hood Hill, a small patch of woods near the victims' neighborhood.

Baldwin's attorneys, Ford and Robin Wadley, carefully examined each item. They wanted to know how each was dried and packaged before being transported to the state Crime Laboratory.

Price focused on blood samples taken from the wall of the Bojangles Restaurant about three-fourths of a mile west of the crime scene.

Restaurant Manager Marty L. King testified at the Misskelley trial that a "bloodied black man" smeared blood on a wall and in the women's restroom the night of the killings.

Ridge testified that he took blood samples the next day, May 6, but later lost them.

"It's my mistake. I lost a piece of evidence," Ridge said.

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