November 2, 2007
Defense for man convicted in ’93 deaths hosts panel with new views
By Cathy Frye
The slayings of three West Memphis boys weren't the work of three unsophisticated teenage killers, but that of a single person who set out to taunt and 'punish' the victims, contends John Douglas, a former longtime FBI criminal profiler.
That person would have known both the children and the area in which their bodies were found on May 6, 1993, said Douglas, who was part of a four-member panel hosted Thursday by Damien Echols' defense team at the William H. Bowen School of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Echols, now 32, was one of three teenagers convicted in 1994 of killing three 8-year-old boys: Steve Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore. Echols, who was tried with Jason Baldwin, was sentenced to death. Baldwin, now 29, received a life term, as did Jessie Misskelley, now 32.
Monday, Echols' attorneys filed a second amended petition for writ of habeas corpus, arguing that new DNA and other forensic evidence has failed to link the three convicted men to either the crime scene or the victims.
Rather, they said, the findings of six forensic pathologists and odontologists - which include unknown genetic material on Steve Branch's penis- suggest the boys were killed by someone else.
The Arkansas attorney general's office, which will oversee the state's response to Echols' petition, issued a statement Tuesday, saying a response may be some time in coming because the agency 'is seeing many of these allegations and supporting exhibits for the very first time.'
The statement continued: 'While the State will look at the new allegations and evidence objectively, it stands behind the conviction of Mr. Echols and that of his codefendants and does not anticipate a reversal of the juries' verdicts.'
Defense attorneys, riding the momentum of national media attention to Monday's federal court filing in the Eastern District of Arkansas, hosted a discussion panel Thursday so their experts could explain their testing and results in more detail.
Douglas, who interviewed the country's most prolific serial killers during his years with the FBI, is known for developing profiles to help police in their searches for violent criminals. He was joined by three other panelists: forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz, who testified in music producer Phil Spectorís trial; Dr. Richard Souviron, a Florida odontologist who matched serial killer Ted Bundy's teeth to one of the victims in the Chi Omega killings; and Thomas Fedor, a California forensic serologist, a blood specialist.
The three scientists offered more details about the new forensic and DNA evidence, with Spitz and Souviron criticizing the state's medical examiner. The two also said there's no evidence that a knife, serrated or otherwise, was used in the killings. They contend all three boys drowned and that animals later preyed on the bodies, leaving behind numerous claw and bite marks.
During their presentation, close-up photos of what Spitz said were claw marks were displayed on a large screen.
'When these pictures came to me, I couldn't understand what the issue was about because it was so obvious,' Spitz said.
He added: 'None of these injuries occurred during life.'
Souviron, the odontologist, also said he saw no evidence that a knife had been used on the boys. The wounds were shallow, surface ones, he said. 'Why, if you were using a knife, would you scrape with it? C'mon. You stab with a knife.'
Chris Byers' genital injuries, he said, were the result of 'degloving' - when an animal removes skin and tissue from an area of a body.
There's no evidence any of the boys were sodomized, the panelists agreed.
Souviron called prosecutors' theory regarding knives and satanism a 'ridiculous assertion,' adding, 'To sell that to a jury was unconscionable.'
Kermit Channell, director of the state Crime Laboratory, said he couldn't discuss the specifics of the defense's petition.
The advances in science and technology will result in an increasing number of cases in which old evidence is retested, he said. 'That's something that is good. You need to do that on historic cases.'
He added: 'We have been open with any information or materials we have. We are impartial. We're not there for either side of the fence.'
New technology, expected to be available soon, will be used to test genetic material found on Steve Branch's penis, Fedor said. The amount found was too minute for current methods of identifying DNA, he added.
Fedor suggested this might lead to new and unexpected developments in the coming months. Recent tests already have possibly linked two hairs - one found in Michael Mooreís ligature and another on a tree stump - to Steve Branch's former stepfather, Terry Hobbs. The second hair came from a friend who was visited by Hobbs the evening the boys disappeared, attorneys say.
Douglas, the last to speak Thursday, said he has interviewed Hobbs twice. Knowing what he knows now, Douglas said he would have 'put [Hobbs] on the front burner back then.'
Attempts to reach Hobbs have been unsuccessful.
West Memphis investigators approached the FBI shortly after the boys' murders to ask whether satanism could have played a role in the crime, Douglas said.
FBI agents advised police to avoid such allegations, he said. 'We told them, "Better not use it."'
In the 1970s and 1980s. back when cops were throwing around the word 'ritual' in association with satanism 'we didn't see one case of it,' Douglas added.
He said he believes the killer knew the children and lived in the area. This person, Douglas said, set out to taunt and punish the boys. This, he said, is based on the fact that they were found naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces. Douglas said he believes things unexpectedly 'went beyond teaching a lesson.'
Dennis Riordan, who represents Echols, said it's not up to defense attorneys to identify an alternative killer. All they have to do is show that the new evidence would have provided a jury with reasonable doubt that Echols was responsible, he said.
The biggest obstacle they face, he said, is a reluctance to consider the possibility that someone else killed the children.
'If we don't stick these guys, who do we have ?' Riordan asked.'That would mean someone else is out there.'