Big news is expected in circuit court in Jonesboro when Judge David Laser holds a hearing Friday morning â?? just announced today â?? on the West Memphis Three case. Families of defendants and victims are expected to be in court, suggesting far more than routine procedural matters are at hand.
None of the interested parties are talking (lawyers are gagged), beyond saying that those interested in the case will want to be present. But I began making calls early this morning when I received a tip from a local attorney predicting earth-shaking developments.
The facts are well-known. Damien Echols, who is on Death Row, and Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who are serving life sentences, were convicted in the 1993 slaying of three West Memphis children â?? Christopher Byers, Stevie Branch and Michael Moore. The trial, though marred by bogus claims of Satanism and shoddy investigative tactics, had withstood appeals until recent developments allowed examination of DNA testing.
To date, none of the DNA gathered in the case has matched any of the defendants. That doesn't exonerate them, but it was powerful new evidence that they weren't involved in the crime. Strong new evidence also was introduced about potential jury misconduct, specifically improper consideration of a statement made by one of the defendants. All that prompted the Arkansas Supreme Court to order a new evidentiary hearing to see whether the defendants were entitled to a new trial. Judge Laser was assigned to hear the case. The previous judge, David Burnett, now is a state senator.
The evidentiary hearing was scheduled for December. The surprise hearing tomorrow alone suggests a major development is at hand. The buzz in the defense bar community is that the news is beyond major. Until now, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel's office has fought vigorously against new proceedings for the defendants and in support of their convictions. A development tomorrow in which he joined in a defense suggestion would be momentous, indeed.
The judge's office released this statement:
The court will take up certain matters pertaining to the cases of defendants Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley on Friday, August 19. One session will be conducted out of public presence with all defendants present and another session will be conducted in open court. The session conducted in chambers will likely begin at 10 a.m. followed by a public session which will begin about 11 a.m.
Space will be limited for the public session â?? first to the parties, counsel and court personnel, then to family members of the victims and family members of defendants with remaining seating to be occupied by media representatives and the public. There will be approximately 15 minutes between the chamber session and open session for media and public to be seated. Miss Stephanie Harris, Arkansas Supreme Court communication counsel, will be present on Friday to assist with implementation and will be the court's intermediary with public and press.
Mara Leveritt, our senior editor who's done groundbreaking reporting on the case and who wrote the book Devil's Knot about the case, will be in Jonesboro for tomorrow's hearing. She has a subscription website at her homepage for reporting on the case.
Here's the link to video of an Jan. 2011 interview Times reporter David Koon conducted with Jason Baldwin at Tucker Max.