Allegations: State withheld evidence
By Cathy Frye
Friday, May 30, 2008
LITTLE ROCK - On the eve of a court-ordered deadline, defense attorneys for Jason Baldwin - one of three men convicted 15 years ago of killing three young boys in West Memphis - fired a new volley of allegations Thursday in separate filings at the Arkansas Supreme Court and the Craighead County Circuit Court.
In the Supreme Court filing, attorneys contend that prosecutors withheld material evidence from the defense teams representing Baldwin, then 16; Damien Echols, 18; and Jessie Misskelley, 17.
In 2007, six forensic pathologists and odontologists hired by defense attorneys concluded that the three 8-year-old victims - Steve Branch, Michael Moore and Chris Byers - suffered injuries caused by animals preying on the boys' bodies after death.
Prosecutors had argued during Echols and Baldwin's trial that the wounds were inflicted by a knife during satanic and sexual rituals. Those two were tried together; Misskelly was tried separately.
In Thursday's filing, defense attorneys say they recently learned that during the murder investigation, West Memphis police consulted with San Diego police about the possibility that animal predation had caused the injuries.
If the state considered animal predation a possible rea-son for the children's wounds, the state should have made that known to Baldwin's trial attorneys, the defense's court filing states.
Defense attorneys also argue that prosecutors failed to provide Baldwin's defense with information about the survival knife shown to jurors as the murder weapon.
A law enforcement dive team found the knife several months after the murders in a man-made lake at the Lakeshore Trailer Park in Marion, where Baldwin lived with his mother and his brothers.
"Although no witness was presented to the jury to provide that information, the state argued this knife matched some of the wound patterns on the victims' remains, making the issue of timing logically explicit: the knife must have been tossed into the lake after the killings," the documents state.
Post-conviction investigations turned up two witnesses who told police that a large knife was thrown into the lake before the murders, attorneys say. And a police officer indicated that divers were given precise instructions as to where to find the knife.
Again, the defense says, if officers or prosecutors knew that the knife had been tossed into the lake before the killings, they should have shared that information with Baldwin's team.
Thursday's filing also questions the reliability of prosecution witness Michael Carson, housed with Baldwin in the Juvenile Detention Center for seven days before the trial. Carson testified that Baldwin told him he had dismembered the boys and sucked the blood from their genitals.
Since Baldwin's conviction, however, defense attorneys have learned that Carson continued to act as an informant after leaving Arkansas. Even while living in California, he often sought advice and assistance from Arkansas authorities, the defense says.
The defense has since located all the staff and detainees who would have been at the juvenile center with Baldwin and Carson. No one else heard Baldwin say anything about the boys' deaths, attorneys say. Records indicate that Carson and Baldwin were togetheronly once for any length of time. A staff member present on that occasion has signed an affidavit saying nothing was said about the murders.
Another staff member told defense investigators that law enforcement officers instructed her to take a leave of absence around the time she might be called as a defense witness.
The last issue addressed in Thursday's Supreme Court filing pertains to genetic material found on the victims' clothing. During the trial, a scientist testified that "it is most likely that the DNA we were detecting did come from sperm cells."
This testimony aided prosecutors in their argument that the murders were sexually and satanically motivated.
If the defense team had been provided lab notebooks and notes in the file, they would have seen a report from the state Crime Laboratory that stated: "No semen was found on any items," the defense filing states.
Baldwin's attorneys also were not given notes from one criminalist who had written that the genetic material may have been contaminated by bacteria from the water. This, according to his notes, could have caused sperm tests to show a positive reaction.
In the Supreme Court filing, a petition for a writ of error coram nobis, attorneys are asking the high court to give the trial court authority to consider facts not known at the time of trial - through no fault of the defendant.
In Craighead County Circuit Court, defense attorneys filed anAmended Petition for Relief under Rule 37, alleging that:
Baldwin didn't have a fair and impartial jury because jurors continued to read about the case and considered Jessie Misskelley's confession during deliberations, even though that confession was not admissible at Baldwin's trial.
Prosecutors withheld information regarding the knife, then committed prejudicial misconduct by conducting a demonstration with a grapefruit during closing arguments.
Baldwin's defense failed to prepare adequately for the case, didn't interview numerous possible witnesses who could have accounted for Baldwin's whereabouts and activities on the days in question, should have challenged Carson's credibility, and should have encouraged Baldwin to testify.
Defense attorneys for Baldwin and Misskelley could file more documents today. None of the attorneys could comment on the case because Craighead County Circuit Judge David Burnett forbade them from speaking to news media.
Burnett has tentatively set a three-week court session in September and October to hear appeals regarding new DNA evidence.
Echols was sentenced to die and remains on death row. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.