Jury foreman in West Memphis Three trial of Damien Echols accused of misconduct
Former lawyer says Kent Arnold steered a guilty verdict in the murder case
Arkansas real estate developer Kent Arnold seemed determined to send Damien Echols, 18, to death row despite an unsettling lack of evidence in the case against him, according to Arnold's former attorney.
Arnold manipulated his way onto the jury, improperly discussed the case with jurors and others before deliberations, and made up his mind to "get his guy" with a conviction before defense attorneys had a chance to present Echols' case, according to an affidavit by Little Rock attorney Lloyd Warford, who was an Arnold family attorney.
As jury foreman, Arnold convinced others to convict based on inadmissible evidence and his belief that if you looked into Echols' eyes, then "you knew he was evil," Warford alleged.
Echols was one of the defendants known as the West Memphis Three, convicted in the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old West Memphis, Ark., boys.
Echols' attorneys are now lobbying for a new trial, in part based on actions they say amount to jury bias and misconduct.
Arnold did not return calls seeking comment left last week and this week at his Jonesboro office.
Warford declined comment about his affidavit.
Arnold didn't want the details of the dozen or so conversations he had with Warford about his jury service to be disclosed and assumed they were confidential, according to the affidavit.
However, Arnold publicly talked about his jury service in the trial of Echols and co-defendant Jason Baldwin, 17, prompting Warford -- a defense attorney and former prosecutor -- to attempt to set the record straight for Echols' defense team.
Warford said because he was hired by Arnold for an unrelated criminal case and business dealings, he doesn't think Arnold's comments about his jury service are protected under attorney-client privilege.
Still, Warford asked a judge to seal his affidavit, originally filed in December with the trial court.
Since an appeal of Echols' conviction is now being considered by the Arkansas Supreme Court, the justices have a record of Warford's affidavit and a pending motion filed by Warford asking for a ruling on the privilege issue.
Months ago, a court clerk showed the sealed documents to Arkansas author Mara Leveritt, who took photographs, said Stephanie Harris, a spokeswoman for the high court.
Harris declined a request last week to release the document. She said: "I think that there was some confusion initially about what was sealed in this case and I believe that the affidavit was provided inadvertently."
The affidavit began circulating to those who are fighting for Echols' release. An Echols supporter forwarded the photographed documents to The Commercial Appeal. The newspaper verified their authenticity through official sources.
The 10-page statement describes a foreman on a mission to send two defendants to prison regardless of the evidence at trial. Echols, who remains on death row, and Baldwin, who is serving a life sentence, maintain their innocence in the murders of the three boys.
Co-defendant, Jessie Misskelley Jr., 16, was convicted at a separate trial after he confessed to helping his friends, Echols and Baldwin, kill the boys during a satanic ritual. Misskelley, who had tested low enough on an IQ test to be considered borderline retarded, later recanted and refused to testify in exchange for a reduced sentence.
His confession, which was inconsistent with some of the evidence, was not allowed at the subsequent trial of Baldwin and Echols.
But Arnold had read news reports detailing the confession and made it a focus of deliberations, according to Warford's affidavit.
In Warford's sworn statement, he claims this is what happened:
Arnold hired Warford in early 1994 to defend his brother, Gerald, who was accused of sexually abusing a girl.
Soon, Arnold told Warford about his jury summons in the Echols case. Warford assured him that prosecutors would cut him after he told them of his brother's pending case.
Warford said: "I tried to explain that the defense would not want him, either, because he knew way too much about the case.
"... I also thought Kent would be struck because he seemed to have made up his mind the defendants were guilty and he had a disdain for our justice system and the due process rights of defendants, which he could hardly contain."
Arnold was upset that he might not end up on the jury.
"He thought that it was crazy that informed people like him who read the paper every day should be excluded from jury duty in favor of 'stupid people who couldn't or didn't read,' " Warford said.
Warford, a former prosecutor, was in disbelief at learning that Arnold was chosen for the jury.
Warford said: "He laughed when I was surprised and made a joke about the stupid lawyers and judges not asking specific questions."
Arnold claimed he avoided answering questions that could get him kicked off the jury.
As the testimony got under way, Arnold grew frustrated at the slow pace of the trial.
Warford wrote: "At one point, I remember him saying something to the effect that at least nine of us are ready to vote right now and asked, why don't the prosecutors just play the confession and get this over with."
As prosecutors continued with their case, jurors realized they didn't have fingerprints, hairs, blood, semen or saliva linking the defendants to the crime.
Warford said: "Eventually, Kent said this prosecutor has not done his job and that if the prosecution didn't come up with something powerful the next day, there was probably going to be an acquittal."
Arnold vowed: "If anyone is going to convince this jury to convict, it is going to have to be me."
Arnold asked Warford for tips on swaying a jury. When Warford told Arnold he couldn't discuss that, Arnold quipped: "What if I pay you to tell what I need to say to get this guy?"
Warford wrote: "Kent's attitude late in the trial could best be described as almost angry with the prosecutor and the lack of proof."
The confession was not allowed at trial, but a West Memphis police detective improperly made a reference to something Misskelley said, prompting defense attorneys to request a mistrial. The trial judge ruled that the trial must continue, but he instructed jurors to disregard any mention of a confession -- which angered Arnold.
Warford said: "Kent would go on and on about how in business he always wants as much information before he makes a decision and he was offended that judges could keep jurors from getting all the information."
That didn't stop Arnold from considering the confession, key to a conviction.
"Kent told me if the confession had not been mentioned in court, then he might not have been able to convince the swing jurors to convict."
Warford said he told Arnold that, in rare cases, police obtain false confessions from innocent people. A year before Echols' trial, Warford had defended a man who falsely confessed to a murder. His client was exonerated after the true killers eventually confessed and were linked to the crime through DNA evidence.
Arnold said to Warford: "Your client must have been retarded." Warford responded that his client was "borderline intellectual functioning as is often the case with people police get to give false confessions."
Arnold was unmoved.
Warford wrote: "Kent clearly did not believe there was any such thing as a false confession. As far as he was concerned, the confession settled it."
Ruling due on DNA
The Arkansas Supreme Court is expected to decide within a few weeks whether to grant a new trial to Damien Echols based on new DNA evidence cited by defense lawyers and concerns about the jury deliberations in the case, among other issues.
Concerns raised in an affidavit about the way the jury reached its decision to send Echols, then 18, to Arkansas' death row may not result in a new trial, legal experts say.
Veteran Arkansas death penalty defense attorney William O. "Bill" James said state officials will be reluctant to grant a new trial.
"This is a huge case," he said. "A lot of people just want it to go away."
Howard Brill, a professor of legal ethics at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, said it's debatable whether conversations between jury foreman Kent Arnold and attorney Lloyd Warford were confidential because of attorney-client privilege, but even if those discussions can be cited, the court may avoid ruling on the issue.
"What happens inside the jury room is highly confidential and it would undermine jurors, in general, if they had to rehash what they talked about," Brill said.
-- Beth Warren: 529-2383