By Steve Almasy, CNN
The story of the “West Memphis Three,” whose decades-long murder case was the source for a noted documentary trilogy, returned to court Thursday, with a judge denying one of the men access to evidence he wants tested for DNA, according to his defense team.
The hearing was requested by attorneys for Damien Echols, one of three teenagers convicted in 1994 of the brutal murder of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas. A year earlier, the bodies of 8-year-olds Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore had been left in a ditch, hogtied with their own shoelaces.
Prosecutors argued that Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. killed the boys as part of a satanic ritual and that Echols had been the ringleader.
The killings were the subject of the “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy that raised questions about the evidence in the case. The films, released in 1996, 2004 and 2011, drew attention from musicians including Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits and Henry Rollins, who pushed for a review of the case. The third film was nominated for an Academy Award.
The men were released from prison in 2011 after signing Alford pleas, in which they maintained their innocence but acknowledged that prosecutors have evidence to convict them. As part of a plea deal, they were given time served as their sentences.
This January, Echols’ attorneys filed the petition for new DNA testing, saying it “might serve to identify the killer(s)” and bring justice to the case. Echols’ petition asked the judge to approve testing with an M-Vac wet vacuum system. Such testing was not available previous times the evidence was tested.
“No one knows, of course, whether additional testing of the ligatures (shoelaces) with the new M-Vac DNA collection technology will lead to the recovery of new DNA samples for testing or not,” the petition says. “But one thing for certain is that such evidence will definitely not be found if testing with this new technology is not done.”
Keith Chrestman, the prosecuting attorney for the 2nd Judicial District of Arkansas, argued in a court document that finding someone else’s DNA on the evidence would not prove Echols innocent given other evidence shown in trial.
Chrestman also argued the new technology, “rather than preserving physical evidence — (it) is a one-shot deal that forever alters it.”
On the M-Vac website, the company says: “It is a sterile wet-vacuum. Collection solution is sprayed onto the surface while simultaneously being vacuumed off of the surface.” DNA material is collected in a bottle.
Baldwin and Misskelley are not party to the petition.
“If (Echols’) request is granted and the physical evidence is tested, the remaining defendants could be prejudiced,” the prosecutor argued. “If the testing reveals nothing worthwhile, the physical evidence would still be forever altered. And — with neither notice nor an opportunity to be heard — the remaining defendants would be denied future Act 1780 habeas corpus relief.”
The decision was not posted on the court docket Thursday. But in a statement to CNN, Echols’ defense team said the judge ruled with the prosecution that only those who are incarcerated request a DNA test of the evidence.
“We are extremely disappointed in the Judge’s decision which was based upon a narrow interpretation of the law and one that failed to allow justice to be served,” said Lonnie Soury, a member of Echols’ defense team. “All we asked is for the right to seek to identify the DNA of the real killer(s).”
Soury said they plan to appeal.
No prior DNA links to the suspects
DNA tested between December 2005 and September 2007 failed to link the men to the crime, and the state Supreme Court ruled in November 2010 that all three could present new evidence to the trial court in an effort to clear them, something pre-empted by the plea deals.
The material included hair from a ligature used to bind Moore and a hair recovered from a tree stump near where the bodies were found, court documents said.
The hair found in the ligature was consistent with Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while the hair found on the tree stump was consistent with the DNA of a friend of Hobbs’, according to the documents.
Police have never considered Hobbs a suspect and he maintains that he had nothing to do with the murders.
Three witnesses who resided next to one of the victims filed affidavits in October 2009 with the Arkansas Supreme Court saying they saw the second-graders with Terry Hobbs the night before the bodies were found by police.
The statement from the witnesses contradicted Hobbs’ statements to police and in court that he never saw his stepson, Steve, on the day of the murder.
Prosecutors said at trial punctures and cut marks on the victims showed the crimes were part of a sadistic ritual. After the three were convicted, some forensic examiners argued those marks were from animal bites.
The prosecution relied on the confession of Misskelley, a 17-year-old with learning disabilities and an IQ of 70. He confessed after an untaped, three-hour interrogation by police without his parents or an attorney present. Misskelley, who was tried separately, later recanted his confession.
Echols and Baldwin said that at the time, they were targeted for being different from the rest of their peers in the small town where they lived. They read different books, wore different clothes and had different haircuts.
“The evidence against us was our personal preferences in music,” Baldwin said. “I remember at one point during the trial, they lifted up a record, a Blue Oyster Cult record, and I think (prosecutor) John Fogleman said this was found in Damien’s girlfriend’s mother’s house.”
Critics of the case against the men argued that no direct evidence tied them to the killings, and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused the boys’ wounds.
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CNN’s Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.