The West Memphis Police Department has been ordered to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request sent by Patrick Benca, an attorney representing Damien Echols.
Echols is seeking information about what happened to DNA evidence that could potentially exonerate the West Memphis 3, but “has either been destroyed, is missing, or both,” according to a press release issued by Echols’ team.
“We have been literally begging the state of Arkansas to allow us to do further DNA testing to clear our names for over a year,” Echols said in the press release. “We were lied to repeatedly, and now we learn that much of the evidence has been destroyed or lost.”
Echols was one of three teenagers convicted in 1994 of the murder of three boys in West Memphis. The three were released under an “Alford plea,” which allows defendants to assert their innocence, while conceding that the state has enough evidence to convict them.
“Echols…served 18 years on death row in Arkansas, for a crime neither he nor his co-defendants, Jason Baldwin or Jesse Misskelley, committed,” the press release stated — evidence preserved by the West Memphis Police Department that could prove their innocence “has been lost, destroyed or both.”
From the press release:
The West Memphis Police Department has been served with a summons by The Circuit Court of Crittenden County and the State of Arkansas ordering that the WMPD respond to FOIA request demanding answers to “what happened to the evidence in the West Memphis 3 case?” THE WMPD has 30 days to respond to a lawsuit filed by Damien Echols’ attorney, Patrick Benca.
Here’s the FOIA request, submitted in July.
More background from the press release:
Over the past year, Echols and his attorneys have tried on numerous occasions to contact the West Memphis Police Department as well as Prosecutor, now judge, Scott Ellington to make arrangements to transfer the forensic evidence to a special laboratory for M-Vac testing. Echols has received absolutely no response.
Patrick Benca had reached out to Crittenden County acting Prosecuting Attorney Keith Chrestman seeking to review the evidence when he learned from him that after the plea, in 2011, some of the evidence ended up lost and missing, and some of the evidence ended up in a building that burned down. He agreed at first to review the remaining evidence with Benca, but now, according to news reports, Chrestman is now saying “he told Echols’ attorneys that if they wanted that evidence tested they would have to seek a court order.”
Attorney Stephen Braga said, “The West Memphis PD agreed to facilitate the testing of some of the evidence, but then the West Memphis police as well as Prosecutor Ellington stopped communicating with us over the past year. We have now have learned that much of the evidence has been lost, destroyed or both. We are deeply concerned about the sequence of events. Was the evidence lost after we requested advanced DNA testing? What evidence is left? Where does that evidence reside now? Bottom line is that we want to submit the remaining evidence for advanced DNA testing to hopefully obtain new DNA results that can help fully exonerate the three men.”
In May 2020, Echols, his attorney Stephen Braga and Lonnie Soury contacted then Crittenden County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington who agreed to release evidence in the case for further DNA testing. In a series of email correspondence, Ellington contacted Kermit Channel at the Arkansas Crime Lab who informed Ellington that the trial evidence was located at the West Memphis police department. Ellington then contacted WM Police Assistant Chief Langston and Major Stacey Allen who also agreed to provide the evidence for DNA testing.
This was a very positive development, as filmmaker Bob Ruff, who had recently completed a docuseries on the West Memphis 3 case, had recommended using the new M-Vac DNA system on the existing evidence to hopefully reveal a stronger DNA connection to the real perpetrator (s) in the killing of the three children. Testing had previously revealed that the DNA linked to Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the murdered children, was found in the ligatures on the sneaker of one of the boys. Ruff hoped to confirm that, as well as identify other DNA links to the killers. A recent FBI study found that the amount of DNA recovered with the M-Vac system was several‐fold greater—the vacuum system yielded an average of 12 times more nDNA and 17x greater mtDNA- than traditional testing methods.