LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The three men convicted in the grisly murders of three West Memphis Cub Scouts won new hearings Thursday to argue their innocence, more than 15 years after they were sent to prison despite scant physical evidence linking them to the crime scene.
The Arkansas Supreme Court ordered the hearings to decide whether new DNA analysis — and other evidence not introduced at the 1994 trials — could lead a reasonable jury to acquit death row inmate Damien Echols as well as Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who are serving life sentences.
The ruling was a major win for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, who are known to sympathizers as the West Memphis Three and have gained the support of celebrities as well as legal scholars who say they were wrongfully convicted. Echols has been on Arkansas' death row since 1994, when he was 20, after being convicted in the deaths of 8-year-olds Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. The three boys were found beaten, nude and hog-tied in an area known as Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis.
Echols' attorneys called Thursday's decision a "landmark victory" and praised the high court for allowing Echols to pursue his claims of innocence. Prosecutors sought to limit what evidence could be introduced under the state's DNA law, which the Legislature passed in 2001 to give inmates an avenue to pursue exoneration.
The Supreme Court rebuked Circuit Judge David Burnett for not holding a hearing on the DNA evidence before rejecting Echols' request for a new trial in 2008. Burnett had ruled that the crime-scene DNA evidence — which shows no trace of Echols or the two other men convicted of the murders — was legally inconclusive and not enough to prove innocence.
"While there is a significant dispute in this case as to the legal effects of the DNA test results, it is undisputed that the results conclusively excluded Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley as the source of the DNA evidence tested," the court wrote Thursday.
The case has drawn interest far beyond Arkansas. In August, a rally in Little Rock to support Echols' legal fund featured Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, actor Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines and drew more than 2,000 people.