Innocence Project files brief supporting Echols DNA effort

Damien Echols talks with reporters outside the West Memphis District Courthouse in this June 23, 2022 file photo. Echols had just attended a hearing on whether to retest evidence from his 1993 trial for new DNA. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday granted a motion from The Innocence Project to file an amicus brief in support of Damien Echols, who is asking to use new DNA testing on items from a 1993 triple homicide known as the West Memphis Three case.

The brief was tendered Oct. 23 and filed into the court record on Thursday.

Amicus curiae is Latin for "friend of the court." Amicus curiae briefs are filed by a person or group that, while not a party in the case, intends to influence the court's decision, according to the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School.

Echols wants new DNA testing technology to be used on sneaker laces from the 1993 slaying of three 8-year-old boys -- Christopher Byers, Steve Branch and Michael Moore -- in Crittenden County.

Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of those murders, and Echols was sentenced to death.

But in 2011, with the possibility of new trials looming, the West Memphis Three were released from prison after taking Alford pleas.

An Alford plea is a guilty plea entered by a criminal defendant who doesn't admit guilt but pleads guilty as part of a plea bargain.

While maintaining their innocence, Echols and Baldwin each pleaded guilty to three counts of first-degree murder, a lesser crime than the three counts of capital murder for which each man was convicted at trial.

Also maintaining his innocence, Misskelley pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. Those are the same charges that a trial jury found Misskelley guilty of in 1994.

The three were sentenced to the time they'd already served in prison and were given additional 10-year suspended sentences.

Since taking the Alford pleas, the West Memphis Three have been trying to clear their names.

No DNA evidence ever linked the defendants to the deaths. But Echols believes new M-Vac wet-vacuum DNA testing could exonerate them. That technology wasn't available when the previous DNA testing was done.

Echols' attorneys petitioned Crittenden County Circuit Court on Jan. 24, 2022, to permit M-Vac wet-vacuum DNA testing on sneaker laces that were used to hogtie the three boys.

Echols sought the new DNA testing under Arkansas Act 1780 of 2001, which is codified under the habeas corpus chapter of state law -- Arkansas Code Annotated 16-112-201.

Habeas corpus is Latin for "that you have the body." According to the Legal Information Institute, a writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee before the court to determine if that person's imprisonment or detention is lawful.

Crittenden County Circuit Judge Tonya Alexander denied Echols' request in June 2022, stating that he wasn't entitled to the evidence examination, even if it could clear him, because state law only allows incarcerated people the opportunity to seek new evidence testing.

Echols appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The Innocence Project disagreed with Alexander's ruling that Act 1780 only pertains to people who are incarcerated.

"The Act contains no such requirement -- imposing one would deny wrongfully convicted individuals access to DNA testing that could conclusively establish their innocence," according to The Innocence Project's 32-page brief. "The circuit court overemphasized the location of the Act's codification over its plain language. Post-conviction testing is fundamentally different from 'habeas' and governed by a self-contained subsection that provides unique remedies and procedures unavailable in traditional habeas."

DNA technology has advanced significantly since the Act's passage in 2001, according to The Innocence Project.

"And this case perfectly captures how the Act should work -- years after Echols's conviction, scientific advancements have begun to provide answers in a case begging for them," according to the brief. "It is beyond dispute that the testing Echols seeks is capable of identifying perpetrator DNA, excluding him from being that person, and of identifying the actual assailant.

"The circuit court's extra-textual interpretation would preclude using the most recent advancement to bring justice to Echols and the victims. It would prevent countless individuals from establishing their innocence -- and countless perpetrators from being brought to justice. This Court should interpret Act 1780 according to its plain language and ensure that its purpose is fulfilled."

The Center for Wrongful Convictions and a group of 69 "wrongfully convicted" people known as the "exonorees" also filed amicus briefs in the case. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on those filings on Sept. 22.