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West Memphis Three: Three men convicted, DNA evidence reopens case

For the first time in Arkansas, convicted murderers prevail in seeking review of DNA evidence. Such reviews have exonerated 261 others, but will it help West Memphis Three?

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Gradually, resistance to postconviction DNA testing is abating, as prisoners who maintain their innocence are granted new hearings or exonerated because advances in forensic and DNA testing can now back up their claims.

Arkansas is about to have its first such case – and it's a big, high-profile one.

The case of the so-called West Memphis Three – a cause célèbre for 17 years, ever since three teens were convicted of murdering three young boys – is heading back to court, upon order of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

For Arkansas, it's the first test of the language of an amended 2005 statute, which not only granted postconviction access to DNA testing for people who claim innocence, but also opened the door for consideration of any evidence that presents a reasonable probability that the person making the motion "did not commit the offense." The amended statute also allows the prosecution to introduce additional evidence.

The state Supreme Court's decision early this month doesn't mean the three prisoners – Damien Echols, who sits on death row, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley Jr. – are innocent. It doesn't necessarily mean they'll get a new trial. But it does mean that a lower court judge must hold a hearing to consider evidence that may cast doubt on their guilt.

When the case was tried in 1993, forensic DNA evidence was introduced, but the defense argued that it was tainted or crudely tested. None of it, however, linked the West Memphis Three to the crime. More recent tests on forensic evidence from the case have turned up various strands of DNA, but none that matched any of the West Memphis Three.

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