Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Opinion: West Memphis Three, Outrage in Arkansas

Juror Misconduct?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mara Leveritt. Also please see out feature story on the case: The West Memphis Three

By now, thousands of others around the world have studied the calamitous cascade of events that began on May 6, 1993, when investigators found the bodies of three eight-year-old boys submerged in a drainage canal in West Memphis, Ark., a town of just under 20,000 directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tenn.

Victims fron left: Steven E. Branch, James M. Moore and Christopher Byers
Victims fron left: Steven E. Branch, James M. Moore and Christopher Byers

Fear flooded the region. Even as the investigation was ramping up, an article in USA Today captured the unusual character of that fear, asking what "monstrous evil" had prompted the murders.

Jessie Misskelley Jr.
Jessie Misskelley Jr.

The arrest of three local teenagers exactly a month later seemed to answer that question. When two recorded portions of the police interrogation of one of the accused were transcribed and immediately leaked to the press, the region breathed a sigh of relief. Misskelley, 17, said he'd seen Echols, 18, and Baldwin, 16, rape and kill the three boys as part of an occult ritual. Misskelley also implicated himself, saying that, when one of the victims had tried to escape, Misskelley himself had caught the boy and held him for the other two assailants to kill.

The worst of the ordeal seemed to be over nine months later when, after two trials, Echols stood sentenced to death and Baldwin and Misskelley had been sentenced to life in prison. Far from laying the matter to rest and granting peace to the families involved, though, the sorry investigation and cynical trials have left a record that now presents the Arkansas Supreme Court with the uncomfortable choice either to order a new trial for Echols and Baldwin or not. Either option presents thorny problems for those in power.

Damien Echols
Damien Echols

Lawyers for Echols have raised several serious issues in their final state appeal. To me, the claim that the justices of the Arkansas Supreme court will have to examine most seriously is the allegation of juror misconduct striking at the very heart of the verdict against Echols and Baldwin.

In one of the many instances in which the role of supporters of the West Memphis Three has been crucial, Brent Peterson and Capi Peck, co-founders of the group Arkansas Take Action, invited several Little Rock lawyers to a local restaurant a few years ago to discuss what might be done to press state officials to grant new trials. During the discussion, one of the invited attorneys mentioned that another Little Rock lawyer had told her he'd received regular calls from the foreman of the Echols-Baldwin jury while the trial was in session.

Jason Baldwin
Jason Baldwin

That information was passed on to the attorneys representing Echols and Baldwin, who then contacted the lawyer who had received those calls, a former prosecuting attorney named Lloyd Warford. Warford, in turn, submitted a sworn affidavit which now sits before the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In that affidavit, Warford stated that he had entered private practice in 1993, the year of the West Memphis murders. The following year, he was hired by Kent Arnold, a businessman from Jonesboro, Ark., to defend Arnold's brother in a rape case. Soon thereafter, Kent Arnold was called as a potential juror in the trial of Echols and Baldwin.

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