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Police interviewed boy's father

Questions stemmed from knife given to film crew member by The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | March 4, 1994 at 6:00 a.m.

— West Memphis police interviewed the father of one of three slain 8-year-olds as a potential suspect the same day testimony began in Jessie Lloyd Misskelley Jr.'s capital murder trial, a detective said Thursday.

Defense attorneys for Damien Wayne Echols and Charles Jason Baldwin, now on trial in the May deaths of three second-graders, Thursday continued efforts to suggest suspects other than their clients.

In a related development, Circuit Judge David Burnett of Osceola blocked the introduction into evidence of a six-hour videotape made by a California police department whose officers interviewed a West Memphis man who reportedly confessed and then denied the crime.

West Memphis police inspector Gary Gitchell testified Thursday he interviewed Mark Byers, the adoptive father of one of the boys, on Jan. 26 after a documentary film crew mailed Gitchell a knife that a cameraman obtained from Byers. The knife had "possible blood stains," he said.

In earlier interviews, Gitchell said investigators found no evidence linking Byers to the crime.

Prosecutors called Gitchell to the stand on the fourth day of testimony in the capital murder trial of Echols, 19, of West Memphis, and Baldwin, 16, of Marion.

Police arrested Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, 18, of Marion, in the deaths of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch. A jury last month found Misskelley guilty of first- and second-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison, plus 40 years.

The boys disappeared May 5, 1993, and authorities found their bodies the next day.

Gitchell confirmed he received a Kershaw folding knife with a serrated blade from Creative Thinking International on Jan. 8. Home Box Office, the cable TV channel, hired Creative Thinking to produce a documentary on the case.

Gitchell testified he immediately sent the knife to Genetic Design, a North Carolina-based DNA testing laboratory. But, he said, he was unable to interview Byers about the knife until Jan. 26.

Echols' attorney, Val Price of Jonesboro, noted that Gitchell told Byers of his rights before the 25-minute interview.

"At the time you read the rights to Mr. Byers, did you consider him to be a possible suspect to these homicides?" Price asked.

"That possibility was there," responded Gitchell.

Gitchell called it "standard investigative process" to read someone his rights in the event his statement might later be used against him.

Burnett refused to allow Gitchell to comment on what Byers said. He told Price he could call Byers to the stand when the defense presents its case.

During the hearing, Price indicated he would call Byers to the stand. Price declined to comment further when the trial recessed.

On Wednesday, Byers' wife, Melissa, said her husband gave the knife to a Creative Thinking cameraman last summer.

Michael A. DeGuglielmo, director of forensic analysis for Genetic Design, testified blood on the knife could have come from either Mark Byers or Christopher.

With the jury out of the courtroom, Price read a transcript of questions Gitchell asked Byers.

Gitchell told Byers the test results meant he had to account for the blood found on the knife.

"I've got to ask you point-blank, were you around or did you participate in the deaths of these boys?" Gitchell said.

Price did not read Byers' response.

Gitchell declined comment about the interview after court adjourned for the day.

Also, with the jury out of the room, Price entered into the record a case file and videotape of Christopher Morgan, 20, of West Memphis.

Price described the statement as a confession taken during an interview with the Oceanside, Calif., Police Department.

"He left West Memphis within a week of the murder," Price said. He said Morgan told police, "Maybe I freaked out, blanked out, and killed the little boys."

"If there's been a confession, I'd sure like to see it," Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Fogleman said. "It's news to me."

Burnett quickly scanned the material, pointing out that Morgan said the boys' arms had been cut off, which is not true.

"What I read here doesn't amount to a confession," Burnett said. "Most of it is denial."

Price noted that the judge read from a police report and the entire interview has not been transcribed.

Price said Morgan has been issued a subpoena to testify and was in court Monday. Price said he's still considering whether to call Morgan to the stand.

April Ferguson, an assistant federal public defender in Memphis, represents Morgan. She said Morgan faces no criminal charges in Arkansas, but did send attorneys a letter saying that she wanted to be notified before authorities contact her client.

She said she didn't know anything about the statement to the California department.

"I was only appointed to represent him in a federal drug case," she said.

Ferguson said authorities arrested Morgan on a charge of possession of LSD.

Sgt. Tom Bussey, spokesman for the Oceanside Police Department, said all records involving Morgan have been sent to Arkansas.

"We did some work for some authorities in Arkansas, but I don't know what was in this interview nor when it took place," Bussey said.

With the jury in the room, DeGuglielmo said no evidence sample submitted to him for testing matched those from either Baldwin or Echols.

DeGuglielmo did say that stains found on one victim's pants tested positive for male DNA.

Kermit Channell, a serologist with the state Crime Laboratory, forwarded the samples to Genetic Design when preliminary tests indicated the presence of semen, but no sperm could be found.

Burnett denied an attempt by Price to submit a "suspect" list prepared by the Crime Laboratory containing blood-test results for about 25 people.

When Price tried to suggest it helped prove that police investigated other suspects before focusing on Echols, Burnett ruled the list "irrelevant."

"I'm not going to let you confuse the issue for the jury," Burnett said.

Jurors also heard the first testimony that placed Echols near the crime scene.

Anthony Hollingsworth and his mother, Narlene, testified that they saw Echols and his girlfriend, Domini Teer, walking near the Blue Beacon Truck Wash off Interstate 40 after 9:30 p.m. May 5. The boys were last seen shortly after 6 p.m.

Testimony will resume Monday.

Burnett decided not to hear testimony today to allow him to handle other court business and to attend a legal conference.

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