The hearing was requested by attorneys for Damien Echols, one of three teenagers convicted in 1994 of the brutal murder of three Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas. A year earlier, the bodies of 8-year-old Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore were left in a ditch, tied with their own shoelaces.
Prosecutors argued that Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. killed the boys as part of a satanic ritual and that Echols was the ringleader.
The murders were the subject of the “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy which raised questions about the evidence in the case. The films, released in 1996, 2004 and 2011, caught the attention of musicians such as Eddie Vedder, Tom Waits and Henry Rollins, who prompted a review of the case. The third film was nominated for an Oscar.
Last January, lawyers for Echols filed the request for new DNA tests, saying it “could serve to identify the murderer(s)” and bring justice to the case. Echols’ petition asked the judge to approve testing with an M-Vac wet vacuum system. Such tests were not available the previous times the evidence was tested.
“No one knows, of course, whether or not further testing of the ligatures (laces) with the new M-Vac DNA collection technology will lead to the recovery of new DNA samples for testing,” the petition reads. “But one thing is certain, and that is that such evidence will definitely not be found if testing with this new technology is not done.”
Keith Chrestman, the prosecutor for the 2nd Judicial District of Arkansas, argued in a court document that finding someone else’s DNA on the evidence would not prove Echols’ innocence given the other evidence presented at trial.
Chrestman also argued for the new technology, “rather than preserving physical evidence – (it’s) a one-time deal that changes it forever.”
Baldwin and Misskelley are not part of the petition.
“If (Echols’) request is granted and the physical evidence is tested, the remaining defendants could be harmed,” the prosecutor said. “If the tests reveal nothing of value, the physical evidence would still be forever altered. And – without notice or an opportunity to be heard – the remaining defendants would be denied the future habeas corpus remedy of the 1780 Act.”
The decision was not posted on the court docket Thursday. But in a statement to CNN, Echols’ defense team said the judge ruled with the prosecution that only incarcerated individuals request DNA testing of the evidence.
“We are extremely disappointed with the judge’s decision which was based on a narrow interpretation of the law and failed to serve justice,” said Lonnie Soury, a member of Echols’ defense team. “All we asked for was the right to seek to identify the DNA of the real killer or killers.”
Soury said they plan to appeal.
No prior DNA links to suspects
The material included hair from a ligature used to bind Moore and a hair recovered from a tree stump near where the bodies were found, according to court documents.
The hair found in the ligature matched Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, while the hair found on the tree stump matched the DNA of a friend of Hobbs, the documents say.
Police never considered Hobbs a suspect and he maintains he had nothing to do with the murders.
Three witnesses who resided next door to one of the victims filed affidavits in October 2009 with the Arkansas Supreme Court claiming to have seen the sophomores with Terry Hobbs the night before the bodies were discovered by police.
The witness statement contradicts Hobbs’ statements to police and court that he never saw his stepson, Steve, on the day of the murder.
Prosecutors said at trial that the punctures and cut marks on the victims showed the crimes were part of a sadistic ritual. After the three men were found guilty, some medical examiners argued that these marks were from animal bites.
The prosecution relied on the confession of Misskelley, a 17-year-old with a learning disability and an IQ of 70. He confessed after a three-hour unrecorded questioning by police without his parents present or a lawyer. Misskelley, who was tried separately, later recanted her confession.
Echols and Baldwin said at the time they were targeted because they were different from the rest of their peers in the small town where they lived. They read different books, wore different clothes, and had different haircuts.
Critics of the case against the men argued that no direct evidence linked them to the murders and that a knife recovered from a lake near the home of one of the men could not have caused any injuries to the boys .
CNN’s Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.