By JILL ZEMAN BLEED
Associated Press Writer
LITTLE ROCK — A 35-year-old Arkansas man facing execution for the brutal killings of three 8-year-old boys will ask the state Supreme Court Thursday for a new trial based on claims of juror misconduct and new DNA evidence he contends proves his innocence.
The Arkansas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Damien Echols. He is on death row for the 1993 murders of Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, all of West Memphis, Ark.
The high court upheld Echols’ conviction in 1996, finding there was sufficient evidence to prove he killed the boys. Echols filed a new appeal after the court granted him permission for DNA testing that wasn’t available at the time of his trial in 1994.
According to a report filed with the court, there was no DNA from Echols or the two other men convicted of murder found at the crime scene — a wooded area where the boys were found beaten, nude and hog-tied.
Echols’ attorney Dennis Riordan acknowledged that he has a difficult case.
"The presumption is that legally, if you’ve gone through a trial and appeal, there’s virtually no chance that you’re innocent," he said.
But Riordan said the DNA analysis dismantles the prosecutors’ key theory at the time of the trial: that Echols and his friends killed and sexually assaulted the boys as part of a Satanic ritual.
"The whole notion of a sexual assault was impossible because there was no genetic material to indicate that," he said.
Arkansas’ attorney general’s office, which is fighting Echols’ request for a new trial, said nothing in the DNA tests exonerates the death-row inmate.
Echols also argues in his appeal that during deliberations, jurors considered information that was never introduced as evidence at trial. His attorneys have filed sealed affidavits that they say show that the jury considered the confession of Jessie Misskelley, who implicated himself, Echols and Jason Baldwin in the murders.
Misskelley’s trial was severed from Baldwin’s and Echols’ because Misskelley refused to testify against his friends. That confession couldn’t be introduced at the other trials because a defendant has the right to confront his accuser, and Misskelley refused to take the stand.
Echols’ attorneys say they have affidavits that show the jury used the confession as a reason to convict Echols and Baldwin when they were deliberating guilt or innocence.
The state counters that those claims can’t be considered because Echols’ appeal should be limited to arguments over DNA evidence.
"The state maintains that jury deliberations provided justice in this case," said Aaron Sadler, a spokesman for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
If the high court grants a new trial for Echols, it will likely open the door for new proceedings for Baldwin and Misskelley, who are both serving life sentences for the murders. Echols’ attorneys are expected to ask a federal judge for a new trial if the state court rejects his appeal.
The case has drawn interest far beyond Arkansas. Last month, a rally in Little Rock to support Echols’ legal fund featured Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, actor Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and drew more than 2,000 people.