Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

West Memphis Three Petition for New Trial

Forensic Evidence

   

Besides the evidence of juror misconduct, the defense teams presented DNA evidence discovered while the men were in prison, evidence that indicated another suspect. After lengthy negotiations between attorneys for the convicted men and the state, new tests had been conducted on several items of crime-scene evidence. Nothing in those tests revealed a link to any of the men in prison. However, two hairs had been discovered that appeared to have come from two other men who had a known connection to the victims.

Terry Hobbs
Terry Hobbs

One of the hairs was found inside one of the knots used to tie the children. DNA analysis revealed that this hair almost certainly belonged to Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Michael Moore, one of the three murdered children. A second hair, found in the bark of a nearby tree, was identified as belonging to a friend of Hobbs—a man who had been with him on the night the children disappeared.

Hobbs declared under oath that he never saw the children on the last day of their lives. However, after a newspaper reported that statement, two women who lived near Hobbs at the time of the murders came forward to offer sworn statements that they had seen Hobbs in his yard with the victims shortly before the children vanished. The women said they had not reported the information earlier because they had never before known that he had denied being with the children that day.

The defense teams also presented testimony from a group of accredited forensic pathologists that wounds to one of the victims, which prosecutors had argued at both trials had been inflicted with a knife, were not from a knife at all. Rather, the pathologists said, the injuries that looked like knife wounds had actually been made by animals such as dogs, raccoons, and turtles. The pathologists said the animal predation occurred after the boys had been killed and their bodies submerged in the drainage canal where they were discovered the next day.

Lawyers representing the Arkansas attorney general's office argued that none of this evidence was strong enough to overturn a jury's verdict or even to warrant a re-examination of the jury verdicts. And Judge Burnett agreed.

Undeterred, the defense teams appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Again, the Arkansas attorney general's office argued that the verdicts sentencing Echols to death and Baldwin and Misskelley to life in prison were "presumably valid" and should not be reexamined.

Judge David Laser
Judge David Laser

But on Nov. 4, 2010, the state Supreme Court announced that it disagreed. It ordered the lower court to hold a special hearing to decide whether the West Memphis Three should be tried again. That decision marked a huge shift in the case, and was followed by another. The hearing the court ordered would not be before Judge Burnett. He had recently retired from the bench and been elected to the state senate.

Another first, according to the Supreme Court's order, was that the three men's cases were to be combined and reviewed together. That task was assigned to Circuit Judge David N. Laser, of Jonesboro. Laser is physically a slight man, but in northeast Arkansas, where he has spent most of his career, he is considered a legal giant. One attorney called him "a standout" in Arkansas's Second Judicial District, adding, "Whenever there's a real difficult or complex case, all I can say is, he usually ends up being assigned to it."

Laser set aside three weeks for the evidentiary hearing. It will start on Dec. 5, 2011, in the small courthouse in Jonesboro, Ark., where Echols and Baldwin were tried. The judge also issued a gag order, barring all attorneys in the case from speaking about it to media.

 

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