The Arkansas Supreme Court this morning delivered its opinion that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. did not receive fair hearings when they appeared before Judge David Burnett seeking new trials. The court issued separate rulings in all three cases. Here are some significant parts of those opinions.
In the case of Damien Echols
The court found no merit in the arguments presented in September by the state’s deputy attorney general. It paid particular attention to the claims made by the attorney general and Circuit Judge David Burnett that new DNA evidence need not be considered because it did not prove Echols was innocent. In its unanimous opinion, the court wrote: “We disagree with the circuit court’s reasoning on this point. …
“Furthermore, it is unclear to this court how DNA test results alone could ever produce legally-conclusive evidence of innocence under the State’s interpretation of the statute. The State aruges that ‘without DNA testing results that could be dispositive of the identity of the killers here, the appellant cannot raise a reasonable probability that he was not one of them.’
“Despite this statement, the State fails to provide any example of when DNA evidence could be dispositive of the identity of the killers and states in a footnote to its brief that it ‘believes that the forum the statute provides may well never yield relief due to confidence that the Arkansas criminal-justice system does not convict the innocent.’ We decline the invitation to interpret the statutes in this way because it would render them meaningless.”
On another matter, the court wrote: “By accepting the State’s argument that the DNA test results, standing alone, had to be considered against ‘all other evidence of guilt’ to determine whether Echols was innocent, the circuit court read additional language into the statute. The statute’s plain language makes clear that the circuit court is to consider the DNA test results ‘with all other evidence in the case, regardless of whether the evidence was introduced at trial.
“We likewise reject the State’s contention that ‘all other evidence in the case’ means all other evidence of guilt because … the statute’s plain language indicates that ‘all other evidence’ is to be cosidered. … We hold that ‘all other evidence in the case’ means any evidence, whether inculpatory or exculpatory, that is relevant to a determination of whether the petitioner has established, by compelling evidence, that a new trial would result in an acquittal.”
The high court noted Burnett’s ruling that Echols’ arguments for a new trial “fell well short of the stringent showing of a compelling claim of actual innocence.” The justices ruled: “This holding was in error because the court again applied the incorrect legal standard. … As already discussed [the pertinent law] does not require Echols to present a ‘compelling claim of actual innocence,’ but states that he must ‘establish by compelling evidence that a new trial would result in an acquittal.”
Noting that, “Echols was entitled to an evidentiary hearing,” the court concluded:
“Because we hold that the circuit court erroneously interpreted the Arkansas DNA testing statutes, we reverse and remand for an evidentiary hearing, at which the circuit court shall hear Echols’s motion for a new trial and consider the DNA-test results ‘with all other evidence in the case regardless of whether the evidence was introduced at trial’ to determine if Echols has ‘establish[ed] by compelling evidence that a new trial would result in acquittal. … Furthermore, the statute requires that the court ‘promptly set an early hearing on the petition and response … [for] reconsideration of the motion in light of the proper interpretation of the statutes.”