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Defense: New evidence may clear 'West Memphis Three'

  • Story Highlights
  • Defense says new evidence includes hairs that could tie two others to crime
  • Police chief says he'll take another look at case if court asks
  • Appeal filed last week in federal court
  • Damien Echols is on death row; others serving life sentences
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By David Mattingly and Karin Matz
CNN
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WEST MEMPHIS, Arkansas (CNN) -- They are known as the "West Memphis Three" -- young men who were arrested as teens and convicted of a triple killing with occult overtones that chills this working-class Mississippi River town to this day.

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Jessie Misskelley implicated his co-defendants and could be paroled someday.

Defense attorneys for death row inmate Damien Echols say they have uncovered forensic evidence that could spare their client's life and help clear his co-defendants as well.

In the spring of 1993, three 8-year-old boys were found murdered in a drainage ditch not far from their homes. Their hands and feet were tied with their shoelaces.

And at the time it was thought to be an occult killing involving sexual abuse and mutilation. Video Watch doubts cast in gruesome case »

A month after the bodies were found, three teenagers -- Echols, who was 18 at the time, Jessie Misskelley, then 17, and Jason Baldwin, then 16 -- were charged with the boys' murders.

They were convicted a year later after a trial that featured testimony about satanic rituals and heavy metal music. Misskelley is the only one given a chance at parole.

The case has long had its doubters, and it has been the subject of books and documentaries. The West Memphis Three have a following of celebrity activists.

In court papers filed last week, attorneys for Echols stated that -- even with DNA testing unavailable in 1993 -- they have uncovered no forensic evidence tying the three to the murders of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and James Michael Moore. But DNA that might belong to two other men was found in hairs found at the crime scene, the documents state.

The slayings of the three Cub Scouts struck fear deep in the heart of a community, and some people say that fear led to a rush to arrest and convict.

"It was hysteria. Everyone was concerned. Everyone started bringing their children in," said Ron Lax, who has worked the case as a private investigator for the defense since 1993.

"They were convinced there were monsters loose, devil worshipers, Satanists," he recalled. "It was like the community was relieved when the arrests were made because the big, bad boogeyman had been caught."

"I'm not sure Perry Mason could have got those boys off," said Gerald Skahan, a member of Damien Echols' defense team.

The convictions followed, in part, as a result of statements by Misskelley. The reliability of his words has long been called into question.

Misskelley, who is "borderline retarded," Lax said, "had a very difficult time keeping the story straight -- even with the help of police."

Misskelley's father, Jessie Misskelley Sr., maintained police forced his son to make the confession. "My son is innocent," he said.

In their court papers, Echols' defense team pointed out that there is no physical evidence linking the three men convicted to the three boys slain. No hairs, no fibers, and not a shred of DNA.

"We are saying is that there's no credible evidence that links any of these defendants to the crime," said Dennis Riordan, San Francisco-based defense attorney.

Riordan said a team of seven forensic scientists has reviewed the autopsy results, photographs and trial testimony. As part of a 200-plus page filing, the experts concluded there was no evidence of sexual abuse or any type of satanic killing.

They also found that the injuries on the bodies of the boys -- which prosecutors called mutilation -- actually were caused by animals after the boys were killed.

Echols' lawyers maintained that it's not their job to solve the crime, only to show that their client wasn't involved. But the defense team said two hairs found at the crime scene could belong to one of the victim's stepfathers and the man's friend.

"The new DNA evidence is that one hair that was found in the ligature of the shoelaces that bound Michael Moore is consistent with the DNA of Terry Hobbs, who is the father of Stevie Branch," Lax told CNN.

He continued: "Another hair that had been found at the crime scene, which had been unidentified for all these years, has just recently been tested. And the DNA on that hair is consistent with the DNA of David Jacoby. David Jacoby is a good friend or was a good friend of Terry Hobbs, and Terry Hobbs was at his house just that afternoon and evening."

While David Jacoby did not return CNN's calls, Hobbs' attorney, Ross Sampson, told CNN it's possible his client's hair was found at the scene. "It was naturally transferred; it was a child that lived with him," Sampson said.

"Mr. Hobbs had absolutely nothing to do with the death of his own stepson or the two other individuals in this matter," Sampson stated.

Hobbs spoke with CNN. He said the new suspicions are hurtful to him.

"It's hard as a parent to live with the loss of your home, of your wife, your family and then to have your friends and neighbors look at you and think, 'Is there something else there?' That hurts," he said.

State prosecutor Brent Davis would not comment on the case and his office referred calls to the Arkansas attorney general.

"While the State will look at the new allegations and evidence objectively, it stands behind the conviction of Mr. Echols and that of his codefendants and does not anticipate a reversal of the juries' verdicts," Gabe Holmstrom, spokesperson for Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, said in a written statement.

West Memphis Police Chief Bob Paudert was not working in the town when the murders took place. But he didn't rule out further investigation.

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"If we're told to look into it we will. If they have DNA evidence that would give evidence that these three did not commit that crime, I would want to see it absolutely. I'm the first to say that if they have evidence to free those three I would support it 100 percent."

In the meantime, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin wait in jail, hoping to one day be free men. The families of the victims grieve. A town still hopes to some day recover. And new questions in this old case continue to go unanswered. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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