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West Memphis Three: A second chance to prove innocence

The West Memphis Three have battled for answers for decades, but soon the group of men could potentially have a second opportunity to prove their innocence.

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. — A fight for answers that has lasted decades in the storied case of the West Memphis Three could possibly see closure soon.

Over the past year, attorneys have been pushing for an opportunity to retest crucial evidence that could bring new light as to what happened nearly 30 years ago. 

Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin, were all accused of killing three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Now, the three men may finally get a second chance to argue their innocence. 

That innocence all starts with evidence found at the crime scene nearly 30 years ago, a place where attorneys said new DNA testing could finally reveal the truth.

RELATED: West Memphis Three lawyers looking to test newly discovered evidence

"We've been having this battle forever with the state on trying to discover the truth who committed these murders and they still fight us," Jason Baldwin said.

It's a fight Baldwin and the two other men have been battling for most of their lives following the accusations. 

On May 5, 1993, Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers all disappeared and were last seen riding their bikes together. 

One day later, their bodies were found in a drainage ditch according to journalist Mara Leveritt said. 

"There's such a history of wrong from the beginning, from the very first day of this investigation," she said.

The lack of evidence and the lack of DNA testing done on items that were found at the crime scene is what caught Leveritt's attention.

It was that same lack of evidence that put Baldwin in handcuffs for a crime he said he didn't commit.

"The night I was arrested, I tried to reason with the police officers and tell them where I was at, what I was doing that day and everything, but they absolutely refused the truth," he said.

One month later investigators linked Baldwin, who was 16 at the time, to the murders. He wasn't alone as they also linked then 17-year-old Jessie Misskelley and 18-year-old Damien Echols.

Their connection to the case wasn't based on fingerprints or blood samples though, according to Baldwin.

RELATED: Prosecutor asks state to deny new DNA evidence testing in West Memphis Three case

"We get to trial and I think they're gonna talk about the evidence, but the whole talk from the state is that there was no evidence, that the crime scene was completely cleaned up, that there was a total lack of physical evidence and that was evidence of Satanism," he said.

Following that trial, the three were convicted for the 1994 murders despite there being no DNA evidence that ever proved it.

Leveritt said that's when the name "West Memphis Three" began to attract international attention.

"Everybody involved in that basically. It helped their careers to win that case, and it really was at the expense of other people's lives," she said.

After spending nearly 20 years in prison, the men would walk free on an Alford Plea in 2011, which allowed them to maintain their innocence, despite a guilty plea. 

To this day, that still stings for Baldwin.

"The hardest part was taking the Alford plea, knowing that the state was not going to pursue justice and not going to pursue who killed the kids," he said.

Fast forward another decade and the West Memphis Three are still fighting the state for answers.

After months of asking the prosecuting attorney and the West Memphis Police Department for evidence in the case, like the victims' shoes, socks, and shoelaces, Echols' legal team finally got their hands on some in December of 2021.

"There's no doubt in my mind -- law enforcement, that city attorney, everyone that was in there -- there's not any one of them who didn't want to find out the truth either," Defense Attorney Patrick Benca said.

He believes the way they'll find that truth is through new DNA testing that wasn't around 10 years ago. 

It's a process known as M-VAC testing that uses a vacuum procedure to remove DNA on evidence, according to Benca.

"What it will do is it allows us to actually go inside the threading and the knots of the ligatures that were found on these young boys," he said.

Those shoe laces, used to tie up the children, is the main piece of evidence that Benca said the defense wants to test and they're confident it will reveal the true criminals.

RELATED: Damien Echols says police chief's resignation is related to evidence controversy in West Memphis Three case

"Whoever put the knots in those ligatures, despite the fact that they were in water for 24 hours, gives us a good shot at getting the DNA and the people who are directly responsible for these crimes," he said.

Getting the chance to test that evidence hasn't been easy though with Prosecutor Keith Chrestman continuing to deny it, according to Benca.

This is why Benca said they're going to court in June, so the decision will be left up to a judge.

"That's what we have to establish at this hearing is, is it generally accepted by the scientific community, and if so, the court should grant us the ability to do further testing," he said.

If that's granted, the defense believes the West Memphis Three could finally prove their innocence. 

Even if the DNA test does clear them, the path to legally clearing their names isn't a done deal since the three men took the Alford Plea.

Benca said they have a couple of options, like filing an actual innocence claim, which would ask the courts to set the convictions aside, or allow the state to admit they got it wrong.

"Of course, you also have the option of the state of Arkansas saying, 'Hey, look, mistakes were made and we're sorry to these three men," he said.

Even if they finally prove their innocence, nothing can give Misskelley, Echols or Baldwin the time back they lost in a jail cell.

RELATED: Damien Echols files lawsuit against West Memphis police over 'destroyed' evidence

"I don't see it as 11 years free. I see it as 30 years of not being free, of having this wrongful conviction on my shoulders," Baldwin said.

Echols' defense team is confident that if they can test this evidence, they will win the case.

The hearing is set for Thursday, June 23 at the Crittenden County District court. 

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