The following letter appeared on Mar. 21 in the Jonesboro Sun, the newspaper published in the town where Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin were convicted and where the hearing for them and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. will be held in December. The letter to the editor was written by Ken Swindle, who is from Jonesboro but who now practices law in Rogers, Arkansas.
Aside from Dan Stidham, who represented Misskelley at trial, Swindle is the first Arkansas attorney to speak publicly about the case outside of court. Swindle has also begun assembling a group of other Arkansas attorneys who are concerned about the case.
You probably recall the atmosphere surrounding the trial of Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols. I remember after finishing my first year of law school returning to Jonesboro the month after the trials had completed. We all believed that Jason and Damien were guilty. We knew that the murders of the children were unspeakably horrible, and we had heard that Jason and Damien were involved in an occult ritual sacrifice.
I also recall that, even then, there were whispers in the community about the complete lack of evidence. Like most people in the community, I quickly brushed those doubts aside. These defendants must be the “other,” the outsider.
It was not until the case was in front of the Arkansas Supreme Court last year that I began to look more critically at the evidence. Maybe like many of you, those tough questions kept coming back. I began to re-examine the trial from a new perspective. The Arkansas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for new findings. Jason and Damien’s attorneys are asking for a new trial based upon review of new evidence as well as a request for new scientific examination of evidence at their own expense. This testing was scientifically unavailable in 1994. However, there is one piece of evidence already before the court that should make the granting of a new trial automatic: juror misconduct.
The right to a jury trial is a fundamental protection to our communities. To create a fair and impartial jury, judges make all potential jurors take an oath to follow four safety rules: (1) to answer the questions truthfully when being chosen to sit on a jury, (2) not to discuss the case with anyone until the case is over, (3) not to make up one’s mind before the jury deliberates, and (4) not to interject into the jury deliberations evidence not presented at trial.
We now know that the jury foreman in Jason and Damien’s trial violated all four of these safety rules. This fact alone should be sufficient for a new trial. The right to a new trial protects our communities by enforcing the right to a fair and impartial jury that follows the safety rules given to it by the judge. If a new trial with a fair and impartial jury is allowed, especially if a jury is allowed to consider all of the DNA evidence, then maybe, just maybe, those lingering doubts that many of us had in 1994 may finally be put to rest.
Ken Swindle, J.D.