West Memphis 3 Murder Case Gets Court Review

Three boys died in horrific killing, but were defendants railroaded?

The Arkansas Supreme Court breathed new life into a decades-old murder case by ordering new hearings for so-called West Memphis 3 -- a cause celebre for many who believe the men were wrongly convicted.

In an opinion issued on Thursday, the state's highest court ruled that the cases of all three defendants -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley -- must go back to a circuit court to determine whether evidence, including new DNA evidence, merits a new trial.

Attorneys for one of the defendants claim the new evidence might implicate a family member of one of the victims.

Donald Horgan, a San Francisco-based defense attorney representing Echols, called it a "watershed moment" for his client. Horgan said the decision means a new judge will consider all of the evidence in the case to decide "if a reasonable juror would convict Damien Echols today."

If the circuit court judge decides a reasonable juror would not convict Echols then an order for a new trial would be granted.

Horgan said the new DNA evidence consisted of biological material -- specifically a hair -- that, according to DNA testing, is "consistent with the stepfather of one of the kids" and not Echols.

Court documents show that person is Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Steven Branch.

"It is suggestive of someone else's involvement but we don't have to prove that ... only that my client should be granted a new trial," Horgan said.

Hobbs told a local Memphis news station that he had "nothing to hide."

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were convicted in the horrific 1993 deaths of three 8-year-old boys from West Memphis, Ark.

The victims, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and James Michael Moore were found naked, beaten and hogtied in a drainage ditch. They had been sexually abused and one of the boys had been partially castrated.

Echols, who was 19 at the time, was seen as the mastermind behind the crimes and was given the death penalty.

Baldwin, 16 at the time, and Miskelley, 17, were sentenced to life in prison plus 40 years.

At the time, the prosecution claimed the murders were part of a satanic ritual. Police officers also extracted a confession from Misskelley. But that confession was not heard directly at trial. Misskelley, who is mentally challenged, retracted the confession within days.

Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have always maintained their innocence and the case has received a tremendous amount of publicity -- and more recently some high-profile financial support.

In August, there was a splashy rally in Little Rock to raise funds that featured Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, actor Johnny Depp and singer Eddie Vedder.

Two books and two HBO documentaries have been released about the case. YouTube videos, a support group "Arkansas Take Action" and a website, WM3.org, round out the media blitz.

But Echols' attorney, Horgan, said while it might look like the celebrity supporters of the "West Memphis Three" sets the case apart, their story is all too common.

"For every group of defendants like these that ultimately get some attention paid to them there are 100 who are innocent, who have no legal or financial support," Horgan said.

He maintains that back in 1993 when the teens were convicted they had almost no money to pay for legal help and, as a result, were convicted of a crime they did not commit.

The case isn't over yet, of course. Even if the circuit court decides in the men's favor, there would still have to be a new trial.

And the Arkansas attorney general's office released a statement in response to the ruling that read in part.

"We respect the decision handed down by the Supreme Court and my office intends to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to defend the jury verdicts in this case," the statement said.

Still, Horgan said this has been his client's "first significant legal victory in 16 years. So he is cautiously optimistic."