Fresh DNA evidence boosts defense in 1993 Arkansas slayings

LITTLE ROCK, Ark Wed Jul 27, 2011 10:43pm EDT

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - Newly tested DNA evidence in the 1993 killings of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in Arkansas has failed to link the crimes to the men convicted in the murders, including one on Death Row, advocates for the men said on Wednesday.

The DNA, including materials from the crime scene, instead matched three unidentified people, furthering supporters' claims that the so-called West Memphis Three are innocent, the advocates told Reuters.

There were no DNA matches for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr, who were convicted of the crime, said Capi Peck, a co-founder of Arkansas Take Action, a civic group working to free the trio.

"This newly discovered DNA evidence that excludes Damien, Jason and Jessie, combined with all other evidence of their innocence, will hopefully lead to a new trial," she said.

A status report on the DNA was filed on Monday in Craighead County Circuit Court in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

The Arkansas Attorney General's office declined to comment, citing a gag order.

The murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore rocked the community. At the time, police said the murders were Satanic in nature because the children's naked bodies had been bound and mutilated.

The West Memphis Three, who were teenagers at the time of the murders, have always maintained their innocence in the deaths of the boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, on the Arkansas-Tennessee border.

Echols was sentenced to death, while the other two men are serving life sentences. They have all now served close to 18 years in jail.

MATCHED TWO UNIDENTIFIED MALES

The new testing included materials from the crime scene and other evidence held by the Arkansas Crime Lab and police departments, said Lonnie Soury, adviser to Arkansas Take Action,

"It was tested and found DNA belonging to two unidentified males," Soury said, adding that a hair was also linked to a third unidentified person.

"That's further proof that they were not at the crime scene, nor were they involved in the murders," he said.

Soury said the defense team, which was also under a gag order, was also awaiting results from a fiber analysis on shoelaces used to bind the three boys.

The killings received international attention at the time. Two HBO documentaries have been produced about the murders, and a third is planned for later this year.

The case continues to generate celebrity activism. Last summer, punk legend Patti Smith, actor Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder appeared at a benefit for the West Memphis Three in Little Rock.

The Arkansas Supreme Court, in what legal experts said was a rare move, unanimously ordered a new evidentiary hearing in the case last November. It is scheduled for December in Craighead County, the site of the original trials.

The December hearing will allow DNA and other evidence whether it was introduced at the original trials or not.

Craighead County Court Judge David N. Laser, who was not the original trial judge, has banned cameras in the courtroom. There is currently an online petition drive to allow cameras.

"We would certainly support any effort to have cameras in the courtroom and the hearing being available to the public," Soury said. "This trial needs to be as transparent as possible."

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Cynthia Johnston)

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