Since 1994, when he officiated at the trials of Jessie Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, otherwise known as the West Memphis Three, Judge David Burnett has had several opportunities to make further rulings in their cases.
Some of the petitions he heard concerned new DNA test results. Others focused on the arguments that these three young men had inadequate counsel at their trials.
Burnett denied them all. He handed down some of his rulings even after retiring from the bench.
Now it seems Judge Burnett has campaigned for and won a seat in the Arkansas Senate, and whether that's good news for Misskelley, Jr., Baldwin and Echols, remains to be seen; the Dixie Chicks, and Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder may sing the boys' praises, but I am very much afraid their innocence or guilt has long since ceased to matter.
On May 6, 1993, three young boys reported missing the prior evening were discovered dead near a creek bed in a wooded area outside of West Memphis, Arkansas. The discovery of the boys would lead to yet another crime, the wrongful first degree murder convictions of Jason Baldwin, Jesse Misskelley, Jr, and Damien Wayne Echols.
A witness said two of the 8-year-olds were raped and one was castrated. Prosecutors presented evidence suggesting Mr. Echols was a devil worshipper and the younger boys his loyal followers.
An affidavit was submitted to Judge Burnett last year from an attorney named Lloyd Warford; in it, Warford says the jury foreman at the Echols-Baldwin trials, Kent Arnold, disobeyed Burnett's order not to discuss the case outside of court.
Warford also claims that the foreman told him he persuaded the jury to consider information that the prosecutors were not allowed to introduce.
Burnett sealed Warford's affidavit and took no action on it.
Burnett also dismissed as unimportant results of new laboratory tests on evidence from the crime scene that found no DNA from any of the defendants. He was unimpressed by evidence that a hair from the stepfather of one of the victims was found in the bindings on one of the other boys.
And he was not troubled by the testimony of prominent forensic pathologists who concluded that marks attributed to a knife attack, which prosecutors claimed was part of a satanic ritual, were actually inflicted after death, by turtles and other animals in the stream where the bodies were found.
On November 8, 2007, CNN reported “new evidence may clear West Memphis 3″. Attorneys for Echols stated there was no physical evidence tying the three to the murders while new DNA evidence, hair fibers, were found to be linked to the stepfather and a friend of one of the murder victims.
In September of 2006, however, Judge David Burnett rejected claims DNA evidence would exonerate the three men and refused a new trial.
I live in Memphis, TN. Memphis is just across the Mississippi River from West Memphis, AR, but it's a world away, in some ways. I remember when this happened, before they even arrested Baldwin, Misskelley, Jr., and Echols; in May of 1993, satanic ritual abuse hysteria was still going strong, not to mention that the Southern part of the United States is chock-full of all the backwoods, ignorant prejudices you've probably heard about.
It was certainly no surprise to anyone down here, that when they couldn't hang this on the first black man unlucky enough to have been in the vicinity, they found the black-clad, black haired and black-fingernailed kid with the demonic name and charged him and his two mentally-challenged buddies with it. Memphis, TN is slightly larger than its sister city, New Orleans; in Memphis, Damien Echols wouldn't have attracted much notice from anyone.
In West Memphis, AR, however, Damien Echols stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb; rightfully angry, and aware that he possessed more intelligence than most or all of his examiners, at the time Echols acted like a punk. He seems a bit more humble now, but back then he was cocky and arrogant and I don't think he realized at all just who and what he was dealing with. Like most people of the age he was then, Echols probably believed that being innocent actually means something in this country.
Mike Huckabee was sworn in as Governor of Arkansas on July 15, 1996 and served until 2006, a full ten years while the West Memphis 3 story gained traction. Because of his political aspirations and quaint religious views, Huckabee once denied Echols clemency while at the same time he set a serial rapist free, who, upon release, then raped and murdered another woman. And I'm guessing that Echols' actual guilt or innocence makes about as much difference to Judge Burnett, as, apparently, it does to Mike Huckabee.
In December of 2009, Burnett told a reporter for a Little Rock newspaper he was “sick and tired of this West Memphis case”.
In an interview from June of that same year, Burnett made the jaw-dropping statement that he had excluded testimony, and evidence, from the trial; a bloodspot was found, consistent with the blood type of Damien Echols, along with a second spot consistent with the blood type shared by both Jason Baldwin and murder victim Stephen Branch.
And by 11% of the world’s population.
To prove he'd been impartial Judge Burnett stated that he “excluded a lot of damming evidence found on the boys.”
I mean, Senator Burnett.
He's only off the bench, though, because he's found a better seat; I sincerely hope the Dixie Chicks, and Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp are bringing some awareness, and interest to this case.
Because for all intents and purposes—I'm very much afraid “the boys” are screwed.