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West Memphis 3 cases to receive hearing, possible new trial

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • The Arkansas Supreme Court sent the cases back for a hearing
  • The three were convicted of the 1993 murders of three Cub Scouts
  • DNA evidence found at the scene did not belong to the men convicted

(CNN) -- Three men who were convicted of killing three Cub Scouts 16 years ago will have their cases reviewed in a court hearing to see whether they should be granted a new trial, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in the 1993 deaths of 8-year-olds Michael Moore, Christopher Byers and Steven Branch. The boys' bruised and mutilated bodies were found in May 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, their arms and legs hogtied with their own shoelaces.

The court Thursday remanded the cases back to the lower court. The ruling means Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley will be able to present new evidence that could exonerate them. Echols' attorneys said at a hearing in September that they want to present DNA evidence not available at the time of the trial, as well as testimony that supports arguments that Echols and the two others are innocent.

"We are very pleased that the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered a new evidentiary hearing to review the convincing evidence of the innocence of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley," Echols spokesman Lonnie Soury said. "These young men were convicted of a brutal crime someone else committed, and we hope the state moves quickly to overturn their convictions and seek to prosecute those responsible."

The case, known as the West Memphis 3, has gained advocates including some of the victims' parents. Pamela Hobbs, Branch's mother, said last year that she was once convinced of their guilt but began to consider the DNA evidence and believes the prosecution's case was flawed.

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"We are asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to right a terrible wrong, overturn their convictions and grant Damien as well as Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley a new trial," said Dennis Riordan, the lead attorney on the case, in September.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, in its ruling, said that the circuit court erroneously interpreted the Arkansas DNA testing laws and that the three should have been granted an evidentiary hearing.

Testing of the DNA in question was conducted between December 2005 and September 2007, according to the Arkansas Supreme Court. 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 Hobbs maintains that he had nothing to do with the murders.

Echols received a death sentence for the slayings, while Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison.

Now 35, Echols said in September, "I miss the things that most people take for granted, things people don't want, like rain."

Echols wrote in his 2005 autobiography, "Almost Home," that police questioned him a day after the bodies of the second-graders were found. The teens -- Echols was 19 at the time, Baldwin was 16, and Misskelley was 17 -- were arrested a month later.

Prosecutors successfully argued that the defendants were involved in a satanic cult and that punctures and cuts on the boys' bodies indicated a ritual sacrifice. In addition, prosecutors secured a confession from Misskelley, although his defense attorneys argued that he had a learning disability and an IQ of 70. They also claimed the confession was coerced, with neither Misskelley's parents nor an attorney present, and riddled with inconsistencies.

A Little Rock, Arkansas-based group trying to raise awareness about the West Memphis 3 case has brought in celebrities such as singer Eddie Vedder and actor Johnny Depp to a recent public rally.

CNN's Deb Feyerick, Stephanie Chen and Katherine Wojtecki contributed to this report.