LITTLE ROCK — The mother of one of three West Memphis second-graders murdered in 1993 filed a lawsuit Friday seeking access to evidence gathered in the so-called West Memphis Three case.
Pam Hicks of Blytheville claims in the suit the city denied her request to view the evidence in violation of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
The lawsuit, filed in Crittenden County Circuit Court, names as defendants the city of West Memphis, the West Memphis Police Department, the mayor and police chief.
Hicks is the mother of Stevie Branch, who along with fellow 8-year-olds Chris Byers and Michael Moore disappeared from their tree-lined neighborhood while riding bicycles. Their bound bodies were found later in a watery ditch.
“She just wants to view the evidence. It’s been 19 years and she’s never been allowed to see what was in her child’s pocket when he was killed,” Hicks’ lawyer, Ken Swindle of Rogers, said Friday.
“She might want other things after she sees that. We don’t know. It’s hard for her to say what her next desire is going to be when she doesn’t know what she will find,” he said.
Three West Memphis teenagers were convicted in the deaths. Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were sentenced to life in prison. Damien Echols was sentenced to death.
Hicks’ request to view evidence in the case comes just months after the three men were freed last year after 18 years in prison under a plea agreement with Jonesboro Prosecutor Scott Ellington that allowed them to plead guilty and maintain their innocence.
Hicks says in the lawsuit she filed an FOI request on or about June 9 seeking to view all evidence gathered in the murder investigation.
The city denied her request in a written response to her lawyer on June 12, the suit says.
Swindle said the city claimed an FOI exemption under Arkansas Code 12-12-104, which requires law enforcement agencies to preserve in a continuous chain of command any physical evidence of a sex offense or violent crime.
The lawyer maintained nothing in the statute authorizes law enforcement to ignore the FOI law, and that the law contains no specific exclusion for criminal evidence.
West Memphis Police Chief Donald Oakes said Friday that Hicks’ request was not to see individual items but all evidence. He maintained the FOI covers records, not physical evidence.
“We still need to maintain the integrity of that evidence. The items are still sealed in containers; they’ve only been opened at the lab,” Oakes said. “We would never want to do anything to cause Ms. Hicks additional hurt. I also don’t want to taint the integrity of the evidence.”
The police chief said there “are probably some items that the prosecutors and defense lawyers would allow them to have access to,” but added those decisions would be left to them and the court.
Mayor William H. Johnson and City Attorney David Peoples also were out of their offices Friday and did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
John Tull, FOI attorney for the Arkansas Press Association, noted that the statute cited by the city in denying Hicks’ FOI request makes no reference to the FOI law. The law itself, which is strictly construed, contains no express exemption for criminal evidence, he said.
Still, Tull said the city’s argument puts forth a “very interesting interpretation” that he has not seen covered by any attorney general’s opinion or court ruling.
“I’m unaware of the courts dealing with Freedom of Information in regard to criminal evidence and the need to keep custody of it,” he said. “That’s a very interesting and challenging issue.”