LITTLE ROCK Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington said the State Crime Laboratory has agreed to analyze DNA collected from a West Memphis crime scene where three 8-year-old boys were found murdered in 1993 to seek a possible match.
Attorneys for three men - who recently pled guilty even as they asserted their innocence - have contended the DNA will exonerate their clients because it doesn’t match their DNA.
Ellington said the Crime Lab has agreed to run the DNA through a database of law enforcement officials and felons.
“If there are any hits, then that evidence can be brought to the defense attorneys,” he said.
Plea deal reached in West Memphis murdersWatch Video
Ellington said at a panel discussion of attorneys and advocates at the Statehouse Convention Center on Thursday that he doesn’t foresee reopening the case and he remains convinced the men are guilty of the crimes.Gallery: West Memphis case
Any DNA introduced in the case could be analyzed by the Crime Lab, he said. Several sources of DNA, including hairs found in the boys’ shoe laces, had been introduced in court filings. Some of that DNA links to two unidentified men.
West Memphis murders, plea deal topic of forumWatch Video
The hog-tied bodies of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore were found in a water-filled ditch near Interstate 40 in West Memphis on May 5,1993.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were originally convicted of the crimes in 1994. Echols, who was 18 when arrested, was sentenced to death. Baldwin was 16, Misskelley 17. They received life sentences.
The three were released last Friday after striking an agreement using an Alford plea, which allowed them to plead guilty to lesser murder charges while still proclaiming their innocence on the record.
Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser then sentenced them to time already served, as well as unsupervised 10-year suspendedsentences during which they must follow certain conditions if they want to avoid additional time in prison.
Laser was scheduled to consider in December whether to grant new trials for the three men, who have always maintained their innocence, on the basis of new evidence.
Defense attorneys at Thursday’s panel discussion said they proposed the unique plea agreement to avoid a new trial, which would likely remain unresolved for years, and to avoid the possibility that new juries would find the defendants guilty.
“I believe they are innocent,” said Little Rock attorney Patrick Benca, who represented Echols. “I’ve thought that for a long time. The only way you could really know that is if you knew these guys.”
Ellington, nearly certain that Laser would grant a new trial, said he agreed to the plea arrangement to avoid the expense of further litigation and the likelihood that the prosecution would fail to prove its case by relying on old evidence and witnesses who have died or changed their minds since the original trials.
“You had one word for me, and that’s looming,” he said of the case.
A lack of DNA connected to Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin does not prove they did not commit the crimes, Ellington said. DNA was a relatively new form of evidence in 1993, Ellington said, and the West Memphis Police Department, not anticipating its use, may have overlooked other sources of the biological data at the crime scene.
Attorney Blake Hendrix, who represented Baldwin, said the DNA introduced by the defense was difficult to ignore.
“All of the biological evidence that came from that crime scene, none of it came from our defendants,” he said.
The three men originally gained international attention and the financial backing of celebrities after they were featured in a series of documentaries on HBO.
The panel discussion, organized by the Arkansas Times newspaper and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, attracted more than 1,000 people.
Advocates for the men have said they intend to continue their efforts to exonerate the men, seeking pardons and new evidence to find other suspects.
“The big donors, the big bucks are saying, ‘We’re here.We’re going to finish this,’” said Little Rock restaurant owner Capi Peck, who has organized Arkansas Take Action, an advocacy group. “We are not going away.”
Gov. Mike Beebe said earlier this week he would not consider pardons for the men while they have time remaining on their suspended sentences and without “compelling evidence that somebody else was actually responsible.”
Ellington said his office “has been inundated” with calls and e-mails from people who believe the men are innocent.
Defense attorneys will develop a “mechanism” to collect potential evidence, screening it for relevance before sending it to the prosecutor, he said.
Ellington emphasized that he believed he had reached “the right result” in maintaining the men’s convictions.
“If the defendants say they’re innocent, let them prove it,” Ellington said in an interview after the panel discussion.
All DNA introduced in the case is at Bode Labs in Virginia, where it was being processed in anticipation of the December hearing. Further testing by the Crime Lab cannot be completed until it is returned.