Lawyers for Echols to take final appeal to Arkansas Supreme Court

Lawyers for Damien Echols will take their appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court in the wake of a ruling this month by Circuit Judge David Burnett, who ruled that new DNA evidence presented by Echols was insufficient to warrant a new trial. So far, in every appeal in the West Memphis case that has gone before the state’s high court, the justices have unanimously backed Judge Burnett.
(Above: The justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court. Those who ruled on Echols’s appeal in 1996 are Associate Justice Robert L. Brown, second from left; Associate Justice Tom Glaze, third from left; and Justice Donald L. Corbin, fifth from left. Glaze has recently retired.)
In 1996, when the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the convictions of Echols and his co-defendent Jason Baldwin, the justices found that the circumstantial against the twowas sufficient to support the verdicts. Now, attorneys for the state will argue that that verdict should stand, despite new laboratory findings that no DNA evidence collected with the bodies could be linked to either Echols, Baldwin, or Jessie Misskelley Jr., the other convicted teenager, although DNA was discovered belonging to the stepfather of one of the victims.
In their 1996 ruling, the justices relied heavily on the theory presented by prosecutors, that the murders were committed as part of a Satanic ritual. Their opinion noted that, “Echols admitted that he has delved deeply into the occult and was familiar with its practices,” and that, “Echols testified that he wore a long black trench coat even when it was warm.”
In that 1996 opinion, the state supreme court also relied heavily on the testimony of Dr. Dale Griffis, a so called “expert in the occult,” although Griffis’s lack of reputable credentials was exposed at the Echols-Baldwin trial. Ignoring Griffis’s own acknowledgement that his “doctorate” had been awarded by a mail-order university, which he never attended, the Arkansas Supreme Court quoted his testimony at length.
In an opinion written by then Associate Justice Robert H. Dudley, the court noted: “Dr. Dale Griffis, an expert in occult killings, testified in the state’s case-in-chief that the killings had the ‘trappings of occultism.’ He testifed that the date of the killings, near a pagan holiday, was significant, as well as the fact that there was a full moon. He stated that young children are often sought for sacrifice because ‘the younger, the more innocent, the better the life force.’ He testified that there were three victims, and the number three had significance in occultism. Also, the victims were all eight years old, and eight is a witcches’ number. He testified that sacrifices are often done near water for a baptism-type rite or just to wash the blood away. The fact that the victims were tied ankle to wrist was significant because this was done to display the genitalia, and the removal of Byers’s testicles was significant because testicles are removed for the semen. He stated that the absence of blood at the scene could be significant because cult members store blood for future services in which they would drink the blood or bathe in it. He testified that the ‘overkill’ or multiple cuts could reflect occult overtones. Dr. Griffis testified that there was significance in injuries to the left side of the victims as distinguished from the right side: People who practice occultism will use the midline theory, drawing straight down through the body. The right side is related to those things synonymous with Christianity, while the left side is that of the practitioners of the Satanic occult. He testified that the clear place on the bank could be consistent with a ceremony. In sum, Dr. Griffis testified there was significant evidence of Satanic ritual killings.”
In that 1996 ruling, the court considered this testimony a significant part of the “substantial evidence” it found proving that Echols was guilty. Now, that same court—though with a substantially different makeup—will be asked to consider whether the new DNA findings that Burnett recently rejected do indeed raise a reasonable probability that Echols did not commit the murders.
The state supreme court will either stand with Burnett again, or break with its history in this case and order a new trial for Echols. In either event, its ruling will mark turning point.

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