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Look at some of the artists who’ve supported the WM3

For years, Anje Vela, at Skeleton Key Auctions, has been raising money for the WM3 with the help of many, many artists who’ve contributed valuable autographed items. Anje has now put together an awesome video recounting some of that history.

The very cool background music is “West Memphis Moon” by Chuck Prophet.

A look at the judge assigned to the WM3 evidentiary hearing

Judge David N. Laser is said to go ‘right to the important thing’

[private]When Judge David Laser took the bench at the scheduling conference with attorneys in the case of the West Memphis Three, he looked a bit like Santa Claus: roundish of belly but with a trim gray beard and mustache, and a black robe instead of the usual red-and-white outfit. He’s bald to about the top of his head, and from there, his hair is longish in back to where it curls above his collar. Though it’s not evident when he’s on the bench, he is said to be rather short—five-foot, give or take an inch. In northeast Arkansas, however, Laser is considered a legal giant.

The judge imposed a gag order on the attorneys at that January 4 conference. Even before that, he had told reporters that he would not grant interviews until the evidentiary hearing to which he’s been assigned is over. Nevertheless, he is a well-known—and apparently well-respected—member of his community and many people who know him agreed to talk about him.

“He has a very good work ethic,” a former law partner observed. “He will stay as long as he needs to stay to get the job done, and he’ll show up as early as he needs to show up.” Another attorney calls Laser “a standout” in Arkansas’s Second Judicial District, adding: “Whenever there’s a real difficult or complex case, all I can say is, he usually ends up being assigned to it.”

Two long-time friends recalled that Laser grew up the son of a merchant in the small town of Forrest City, Arkansas, about a hundred miles south of Jonesboro; paid his way through law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville by working as a butcher at a local IGA grocery store; married his wife Ann while they were students; and now have two grown daughters and a son.

Laser’s profile on Plaxo.com (last updated almost two years ago) notes that he also has grandchildren. Other entries there reflect a man who enjoys “whatever the day brings;” cultivates new interests “every day;” “loves blues and rock and roll—country, classical—the works;” likes “CSIs, except CSI NY” and “all the Law and Orders;” reads “mysteries with psycho twists;” and holds religious views he describes as “historical/Jungian.”

A friend chuckles that Laser’s love of blues and rock have developed “mostly since his children have grown up and left home.” But when Laser graduated from law school, he was a newly married young lawyer in serious need of a job. He found one at a firm in south Arkansas, where he stayed a couple of years. He moved back to northeast Arkansas when he was hired by Bon McCourtney—“a colorful old guy who hired a lot of young lawyers,” according to Lovett.  “He was sort of a storied character” who was “old-school, to say the least.” Laser did mainly criminal trial work while with McCourtney.

Troy Henry, another lawyer who worked for McCourtney shortly after Laser left, remembers the older man as a good mentor, especially in regard to dealing with people. McCourtney “had a great understanding of human behavior,” Henry recalled, “and, once you’ve learned the book law, that’s the most important thing.”

While Laser was establishing his legal career, his wife Ann Laser earned a graduate degree at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. According to her website, she then began work as a psychotherapist, a career she continued for more than 20 years.

 In 1970, Laser left McCourtney to join another Jonesboro firm, where his practice turned mostly to civil trials. It was there that Henry got to know Laser.

 “I met him in the courtroom too many times,” Henry says with a laugh. “We battled time and time and time again, and he became one of my best friends. Whatever happened in the courtroom, whoever won or lost, we walked out, patted each other on the back and put it behind us. Unfortunately, very few lawyers are like him.”

In the late 90s, when Laser first ran for a position as circuit judge, he was unusual in at least two respects: he had never served as a prosecutor, and he didn’t draw an opponent.  Laser was re-elected six years later, again running unopposed. If he chooses to stay on the bench—which friends say they expect—he will have to run again next year.

Laser does not hear cases tried by Henry or other close friends. But Henry says he always hopes to draw a judge as good as Laser. “When attorneys go into his courtroom,” Henry says, “he already knows all about what they’re there for. He’s diligent and totally prepared. He goes right to the important thing, and that makes a world of difference.”

Stan Langley, another attorney who does not appear before Laser, echoes Henry’s admiration. “His strength as a trial lawyer was his full and complete development of the case. He left nothing to chance. He was almost over-prepared, if you ever can be.”

Langley says that Laser’s regard for preparation followed him to the bench. “He does a hell of a job,” Langley says. “He allows the parties to completely develop their cases. I doubt either side in the West Memphis case will have any qualms or reservations about having him as a judge.”

The picture of Laser painted by attorneys who are not friends of the judge was similar, though lawyers in this group asked not to be quoted by name.  Some pointed out that Laser  was one of the earliest judges in the state to push, along with Judge David Burnett, to establish drug courts in their district. The courts are intended to help first-time offenders avoid prison by submitting to strict monitoring of their conduct and avoidance of drugs.  “He does that every Tuesday night,” one attorney observed.

Another Jonesboro resident noted that, unlike one state judge who used to televise her drug courts, Laser is highly protective of his. “He likes for all of the attention to be centered on the defendant, so he limits attendance. He says, ‘I want them to do it on their own, and not with the whole world watching.’ He doesn’t like the spotlight on him or on the people in there.”

Almost everyone interviewed for this article used words like “personable,” “pleasant,” “kind,” and “meticulous” to describe Laser. Only one person mentioned ever having seen the judge get “annoyed,” and that, he said, happened only “when attorneys aren’t prepared or don’t follow procedure.”

Off the bench, David and Ann Laser divide their time between homes in Jonesboro and Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Ann, who has an art studio . Her work—monotypes, paintings and mixed media—are sold online and in galleries in Jonesboro and London.

This quote from her website expresses her view of art, but it also describes a humane and judicious temperament: “I believe the challenge we all face as individuals, groups, and nations is to be able to understand, accept and hold the tension between polarities in ourselves and with others … polarities such as ‘us/them,’ ‘good/bad,’ ‘black/white,’ [and] ‘have/have-not.’”[/private]

Judge imposes new gag order, in case of possible new trial for WM3.

At a scheduling conference today in circuit court in Jonesboro, Judge David Laser ordered attorneys representing Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. to file briefs with him by Feb. 18 regarding issues to be addressed at the evidentiary hearing that was ordered last September by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Laser said he was “giving this case priority” and that he wanted to “get this done as soon as possible.” Laser was appointed to hear the case because the previous judge, David Burnett, was elected to the state Senate.

The conference took place with some attorneys appearing in person and others by speaker phone. Ten lawyers participated in all — four for the state and two each for the three men, known as the West Memphis Three.

As issues to be considered were discussed, Laser said, “As I look at it, they [justices of the Supreme Court] basically want this case pre-tried through the court.” He added, “I’m certainly not limiting what can be presented. If there are additional issues or evidence that needs to come in, they will come in.”

Little Rock attorneys Jeff Rosenzweig, representing Misskelley, and Blake Hendrix, representing Baldwin, noted that unlike Echols, their clients still have appeals pending regarding their Rule 37 hearings to examine the adequacy of their counsel at their 1994 trials for the slayings of three West Memphis children.

Stephen Braga of Washington, D.C., the newly appointed lead attorney for Echols, agreed that while those appeals need to proceed, “No matter what happens to them, this hearing needs to go forward with regard to Echols.” Only Echols faces the death penalty. The other two are serving life sentences.

Laser responded, “Yes, that seems the way it ought to be.”

He told the attorneys, “Let’s operate on the assumption we’re going to move forward on all three cases to the extent we can.”

Attorneys for the three men noted that there was still some hair and fiber evidence that needs to be tested. They said the “intermingled” hairs were of human and other animal origin.

Attorney John Philipsborn of San Francisco, representing Baldwin, told the judge that at one point, after state and defense attorneys had agreed on evidence to be tested for DNA, “The state did some testing of its own.” Philipsborn asked that no party undertake potentially destructive testing of evidence without mutual knowledge and agreement.

Laser ordered that all testing will be “above the table.” The judge also put all attorneys under a gag order. “If a new trial is ordered, we will need to impanel a jury, so a gag order seems reasonable.” He then said he would prefer to “schedule the hearing more or less like an actual trial” and that he dates open in July, August and October.

All attorneys now have 45 days to submit briefs outlining issues they want to present and a schedule for the hearing.

New evidence, including allegations of juror misconduct and DNA findings, prompted the Supreme Court to order a new hearing for the men, whose convictions had previously been upheld. The hearing will decide whether they men deserve new trials.

Philipsborn’s reference to other DNA testing, marked the first time that there’d been an official court reference to the fact that the attorney general did secret, additional DNA testing after no trace of the defendants turned up in the initial round of agreed-upon DNA testing. News of this leaked out inadvertently to the defense and it’s expected to be a subject of discussion in the Feb. 18 briefs. In the meanwhile, lawyers are gagged and attorney general working papers are not open to inspection. Three employees of the attorney general and Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington would not comment on the secret testing.

Arkansas Times Blog Article

At last! A ruling in the WM case that makes sense!

This is a day we’ve been waiting for, and I want to tell everyone how proud I am of the effort that has resulted in this first, critical step toward justice. The Arkansas Supreme Court could not have been more clear in its repudiation of the reasons Judge David Burnett and the office of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel put forth in trying to deny Damien, Jason and Jessie new trials.

The evidentiary hearing that has now been ordered will be quite something. Imagine: good lawyers, a new judge, all the evidence, and a mandate from the state supreme court that, this time, the three don’t have to prove their innocence! All they’ll have to prove is the likelihood that, under these new-to-this-case conditions, a jury would find them not guilty.

Journalism ethics?

Some of you may have seen the column by Linda Caillouet in today’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in which she suggests I may be ethically challenged because I both report on the West Memphis case and advocate hard as I can for new trials. Here’s the email I sent her this morning:

Dear Linda,

I’m sorry you didn’t call me to ask about my presumed conflict of interest. I would have been happy to tell you “the rest of the story,” which is this: I have been writing about the West Memphis case since 1994. Most of what I’ve written, including Devil’s Knot, I’ve written as a reporter, holding to what I believe are high standards of fairness and accuracy. Over the years, I have also written columns and opinion pieces about the case, based on what I’ve learned.

As support for the convicted men grew, public officials here in Arkansas began to receive volumes of mail critical of their trials. In turn, as local media began to ask questions the response of many officials was that Arkansans were confident that the right men were in prison. They added that the complainers were people from out-of-state who didn’t know what really happened. About four years ago, upon hearing that response yet again, I decided to speak out. After all, I am an Arkansan and, having reported on this case in depth, I do know what transpired. At a time when few people in Arkansas understood the gravity of this situation, I felt that working to call attention to the case was the responsible thing to do. I wrote to Max Brantley, my editor at the Arkansas Times, and told him that, while I intended to continue to report on the case, I was also going to speak out, denouncing all that was wrong with the trials and advocating for new—and fair—ones. Max said okay, and that is what I’ve done since.

I have been very up-front about this, both in writing and in public appearances. If you took the time, for instance, you could hear me explain this transition in a talk I gave recently at North Little Rock’s Laman Library, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAdH_aB4HJk. I have a good reputation, which I value. Perhaps because of that, and because I have been so forthright about my dual roles in this matter, no one that I know of—until you—has suggested a “problem” with my ethics.

I did enjoy meeting you at the Capitol Hotel bar Saturday night, but I think you took a cheap—and uninformed—shot this morning. I hope you’ll be able to find a few words in a future column to explain that, like many fine journalists before me, I have taken a public stand opposing an abuse of power.

Sincerely,
Mara

I think that little ethics ball is in her court now. Let’s see how she responds.

48 Hours does it right

Tonight, CBS presented the finest program on the West Memphis murders since HBO’s “Paradise Lost” aired almost 14 years ago. It’s not easy to tell such a complex story well, but “48 Hours” did the job well. Among many high points, it was a pleasure to see Johnny Depp speak so passionately about the injustice of this case. Watch A Cry for Innocence.

In addition, the “48 Hours” website is hosting additional footage showing interviews with some of the Arkansas people, including me, who are resisting their state’s march to execute Damien Echols and keep Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley in prison until they die. See supporters.

People often ask me what we supporters can do to help. The first and best answer is always to spread the word. With this program, “48 Hours” has given us an excellent link to share.

One quibble: I wonder why, when they got just about every other detail so right, they repeatedly identified John Mark Byers as Christopher’s father. Byers was Christopher’s stepfather.

WM3 supporters upstage Fogelman’s campaign announcement

Members of Arkansas Take Action, a group critical of the trials that resulted in murder convictions for Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., walked out of a press conference held Monday at the state capitol by Judge John Fogelman to announce his candidacy for the Arkansas Supreme Court. (See video here.)

In 1994, Fogelman, then a deputy prosecuting attorney, helped win the convictions of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley, who were teenagers at the time. In the years since, Fogelman has often stated that he believes the three are guilty.

Those protesting at Fogelman’s announcement wore T-shirts that read “Abuse of Power.” The protesters walked out of the confenence room as Fogelman read his campaign announcement to the media.

After the event, Brent Peterson, a Little Rock restaurateur, said that members of ATA believe Fogelman abused the power of his office when he prosecuted Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.

Fogelman said his candidacy was about who was the best candidate for the state supreme court—not about the trials of the men now known as the West Memphis Three. Members of the ATA countered that decisions Fogelman made as a prosecutor are relevant to the campaign and speak to his character.

From this week’s Arkansas Times

SUPREME COURT JOCKEYING BEGINS

Arkansas Supreme Court Associate Justice Tom Glaze apparently has decided to retire at the end of 2010. That creates a seat on the court and lawyers have received letters recently that Circuit Judge John Fogleman will be a candidate for the seat. Fogleman, a former prosecutor, lives in Marion and sits on cases in Clay, Craighead, Crittenden, Greene, Mississippi and Poinsett counties.

Judge Fogleman has a bit of history connected with one of Arkansas’s most famous criminal cases.

Fogleman assisted Prosecutor Brent Davis in the prosecution of the West Memphis Three, the then-youths convicted of slaying three West Memphis boys. An appeal of Damien Echols’ conviction and death sentence is still active.

Mara Leveritt, who wrote a book on the case that spawned a widely watched HBO special, thinks prosecutors in that case still should be called to account for a number of decisions. One was the use of a co-defendant’s statement that prosecutors knew was factually inaccurate. Another was Fogleman’s last minute decision to search the lake for weapons, a search that turned up a knife that Fogleman tried to link to the deaths. The supposedly secret lake search just happened to produce a page one photograph for the local newspaper of a diver triumphantly holding a knife aloft. She also is highly critical of the prosecutors’ decision to use a dubious expert witness to inject devil worship in the trial to shore up a lack of solid evidence. Fogleman underscored this in closing arguments by emphasizing such points as Echol’s habit of wearing black clothing. On such evidence, Fogleman told jurors, “You see inside that person. And you look inside and there’s not a soul there.”

Leverett says Fogleman quickly made use of his “tough decisions in tough cases” in campaigning for a circuit judgeship shortly after a second trial of the WM3. She writes, “In the long run, I believe, many of Fogelman’s ‘tough decisions’ will be regarded as ethically crass, politically opportunistic, and legally underhanded.”

Jason and the warden

I visited Jason Baldwin in his new digs at the Tucker Maximum Security Unit a few weeks ago. It was great to see him, as always. But this visit came with a twist. We’d barely sat ourselves down in the hard plastic chairs in the concrete-block visitation room when in walks the warden, who also pulls up a chair and sits down.

I’ve known Warden David White for many years. As a long-time pro in the Arkansas Department of Correction, he’s had plenty of opportunity to answer media questions. Our past encounters were polite, if not always cordial. But this meeting was different. As Jason sat courteously by, White addressed himself to me and started talking about Jason and about the West Memphis case in general. He said Jason had been a fine inmate since arriving at his unit, and that he didn’t have to stay there. He said that after the investigation that had led to Jason’s being placed in the state’s Supermax facility, Jason had been cleared and sent to the Max, without any loss of class. In short, Jason could request to be sent to another unit, but had not. Jason nodded in assent. He said he was pretty satisfied where he was.

Then White said that a number of folks in the department had read my book. He said there’d been a lot of talk about the case since the announcement that DNA found at the site did not link to Jason, Damien or Jessie, but did match that of one of the stepfathers and his friend. It was a rather strange experience, having this friendly chat about the possibility that Jason was innocent while Jason sat there with us, wearing the prison whites that he has had to wear for almost 15 years.

In the end, the warden seemed to acknowledge the possibility that he was imprisoning an innocent man. Holding up his hands, White told me, “I don’t send them here. I just look after the ones the state tells me to take care of.”

With that, he said goodbye and let Jason and me resume our conversation. Jason was his usual cheerful self. We didn’t talk about much that was important, until the subject of Dustin McDaniel came up, and the attorney general’s comment that it might be two years before the state could come to a decision as to what to do about the increasingly ticklish West Memphis case. Suddenly, Jason became very serious. “I don’t know what would take them so long,” he said. “But I know one thing, and that is how long is too long to keep an innocent person in prison.” Here, he slammed his hand on the metal counter. “One minute!” he said. “One minute is too long to deny an innocent person his freedom.”

I drove back to Little Rock with two images playing on my mind. Jason’s passion on one hand and Warden White’s dispassionate hey-it’s-just-my-job congeniality on the other. What we supporters of the WM3 are trying to do is bring the passion of this to the cool marbled halls of state government. To his credit (and unless I misread him), White came closer to acknowledging the possibility of injustice in this case than any state official I know of. It’s time now for McDaniel and members of our tarnished court system to go the rest of the way: admitting the wrongs and setting about, without delay, to correct them.

On second thought, it’s not time. As Jason so clearly expressed it: it’s way past time.