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A lawyer representing the most outspoken of the three men — Damien Echols — said a FOIA request to the West Memphis Police Department conversation with prosecuting attorney Keith Chrestman resulted in a disappointing discovery this month.
"It was during that phone conversation with him [Chrestman] that I learned that the majority of that evidence, would likely be, has likely been lost or destroyed," Patrick Benca, one of Echols’ attorneys, told Arkansas outlet THV11.
West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the West Memphis Police Department confirmed to him that evidence "might have been destroyed" in a fire "around 15 years ago."
"I don't know what was destroyed or what was not destroyed," he said. "That is what I am being told, that there was a fire many, many years ago."
Three 8-year-old boys — Steve "Stevie" Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore — were found in a West Memphis, Arkansas, drainage ditch in 1993 with numerous and brutal injuries. The side of Branch’s face was ripped apart, and Byers' genitals were so badly mutilated he was essentially castrated, according to Oxygen’s 2020 documentary special “The Forgotten West Memphis Three.” The mutilations were so horrific that they led the original investigators to believe that the killings were part of a Satanic ritual.
As a result, three local outcast teenagers — Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — were arrested and charged with the murders despite not being connected to the crime scene with any physical evidence. The trio became known as the “West Memphis Three.”
The teens were demonized as killers who listened to metal music, and a series of documentaries drew critical attention to the case and suggested the teens were the victims of “Satanic Panic,” a fear that Satanism would infect society. In fact, the controversial trial focused on Echols' interest in paganism and Stephen King books.
Despite the lack of real evidence, the teens were convicted of the slayings. Baldwin and Misskelley got life while Echols, who was depicted by prosecutors as the ringleader, got the death penalty.
The three's release
They continued to proclaim their innocence from behind bars and found some relief after samples of DNA were tested in 2007 and showed that no genetic material from the crime scene evidence was a match to Echols, Baldwin or Misskelley, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com. They three men were released from prison in 2011 after agreeing to an Alford plea. An Alford plea allows someone to maintain their innocence, but acknowledges the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them.
Although the men have been free for the past decade, they are still technically convicted killers and they have been fighting for full exoneration of the crimes.
“There’s still that sense that something ain’t right. Things haven’t been finished. I just want my name back, and I want justice in this case,” Baldwin told investigator Bob Ruff in the “The Forgotten West Memphis Three” last year.
Ruff expressed that there was hope that new evidence could be uncovered in the case. He wanted the bikes, sticks and clothing worn by the victims re-tested with M-Vac, a wet-vacuum DNA collection system that can gather “200 times more DNA sample” compared to swab testing.
“DNA testing … was very limited back at the time of the trial in 1993. There was no such thing as touch DNA … and so I’m hoping that this new M-Vac technology may be the key to unlocking evidence that’s been there this whole time,” Ruff said in the docuseries.
Now, it appears the evidence is gone.
"How do you try to unwind 18 years of craziness and then when you're on the cusp of possibly being able to prove who did it, finding out the evidence isn't there. It's just baffling," Benca told THV11.
He added that he is considering filing a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas seeking damages for time spent in prison if the DNA isn’t found.
"We remain hopeful that we will unravel this case and discover who committed these crimes," Echols' wife Lorri Davis, told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. "We still believe we are going to do that, and we are never going to back down."
She went on to say that they “will keep fighting. Whatever it takes, we will keep fighting it."
The West Memphis Police Department has not immediately responded to Oxygen.com’s request for comment. Mayor McClendon as well as Echols’ attorney Benca have also not immediately returned to Oxygen.com’s request for comment.
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