BIG OLD STICKS
Sticks gathered from the crime scene.
Inspector Gary Gitchell: Did you ever use, did anyone use a stick and hit the boys with?
Big Old Sticks
Damien had kind of a big old stick when he hit that first one, after he
hit him with his fist and knocked him down and then he got him a big
old stick and hit him.
Gitchell: What did the stick look like, I mean was it like a, a, a big log like that or is it, is it a stick?
Misskelley: It, I would say it was about that, about that big around, I would say about that long.
Detective Bryn Ridge: About the size of a baseball bat, maybe just a little bit bigger around?
Misskelley: Mm-hmm. That's about right. [Misskelley confession, June 3, 1993]
Upon Detective Gitchell's prompting,
Misskelley said a stick had been used to hit one of the children.
Misskelley went on to state a stick was used to choke Chris Byers to
Ridge: Okay, which one did you see killed?
Each of the victims received a number of blunt trauma injuries
consistent with being struck by a heavy object. The wounds did
not, however, contain any wood fragments or splinters.
Misskelley: That one right there.
Gitchell: Now, you're pointing to the Byers boy again?
Ridge: How was he actually killed?
Misskelley: He did, he choked him real bad like.
Ridge: Choked him? Okay, what was he choking him with?
Misskelley: His hands, like a, like a stick, he had a big old stick, and he's kind of holding it over his neck. [ibid]
Defense attorney Paul Ford: Ok. But you would expect to find those - some sort of wood fragment left behind?
The prosecution presented the sticks as potential weapons. The
defense went on to quiz Peretti as to a long list of items that could
have caused the contusions.
Medical Examiner Dr. Frank Peretti: I think I would expect to find some fragments.
Ford: Did you?
Peretti: No. [Echols/Baldwin trial]
There was also no evidence that any of the victims had been choked.
- a 2 x 4 piece of wood
- a baseball bat - (noted it would have a different but similar pattern)
- a rolling pin
- the flat part of shovel
- a broom handle
- a mop handle
- the shovel handle
- a jack handle
- a flashlight
- a tire iron
- hundreds of items (general statement)
- hundreds of items located in almost any household
Defense attorney Dan Stidham:
Dr. Peretti, if you were told that one of the victims was choked,
specifically the victim Byers was choked with a big old stick, would
you expect to find some evidence, some abrasions, bruising, a line of
demarcation, something indicating choking?
Before Misskelley's confession several objects that could have caused
blunt trauma were collected by the police. From the crime scene:
Peretti: I would expect to find a pattern or injury on the neck and the underlying neck muscles.
Stidham: Did you find any such patterns?
Stidham: Did you find any such patterns on the victim, Byers, specifically?
Stidham: Was there any abrasions or injury to the strap muscles of the neck?
Stidham: Were there any fractures of the larynx or the...how do you say that?
Peretti: Hyoid bone. No.
Stidham: Would you expect to find those had a victim been choked?
Well, you may not find fractures of the hyoid bone because in young
children it's very difficult to fracture it but I would expect to find
Stidham: So does it appear be any--does there appear to be any evidence of sodomy or choking on any of these victims?
Peretti: Um, no. [Misskelley trial]
From suspect Richard Cummings:
- E-17, a long thin branch found floating in the water.
- E-41, a claw hammer.
Shortly after Misskelley's confession, several more items were gathered
from the crime scene including E-132, wooden slats. Then one
month later, Ridge returned to the crime scene and retrieved two large
sticks, E-138 and E-139.
- E-25, tire billy.
- E-29, E-30, E-31 three hammers.
On July 1, 1993, I
went to the crime scene to determine if any evidence could be found
that had been overlooked during the initial searches of the area of the
above noted homicide. I discovered that there were two sticks at the
crime scene that had gone previously undetected. [Report,
Detective Bryn Ridge]
In contrast to "previously undetected," at the trial Detective Ridge described E-139 as being the stick that was used to jam
the children's clothing into the mud. Even though it was by
definition an item handled by the perpetrator, it was not collected as
evidence until two months after the murders.
[Referring to a photo] This is the crime scene - this is the area
here where the body of Michael Moore was located, this is the stick
E-139 that had the shirt wrapped around the end of it that was jabbed
into the mud.
Fogleman: Is that exhibit 55 for identification purposes?
If that's the exhibit number, I'm not certain. Exhibit 38 is a
photograph of me as I'm removing this shirt from the end of that stick
of E-139. [Echols/Baldwin trial]
Exhibit 38, Detective Ridge holding up a shirt. Ridge identified the stick in his left hand as E-139.
The defense objected to the introduction of the sticks that were gathered in July.
Defense attorney Val Price:
Judge, at this time we'd object to this stick. This stick is E number
E-139 which was not recovered by Detective Ridge at the crime scene -
this was a stick that Mr. Ridge found at the crime scene two months
after the murders on July 1, 1993 and we object to this stick as being
of relevance for any purpose. [Echols/Baldwin trial]
This objection led to a voir dire with the defense contesting the relevancy of the evidence.
Price: Ok. Well, on - isn't it true that on July the 1st 1993, you went back to the crime scene and found E-139 - that stick?
In the Echols/Baldwin trial, Misskelley's confession could not be
referenced. Since Misskelley was unwilling to testify to support
the confession, the defendants would be denied their right to face
their accuser. The event that initiated the mistrial hearing was
odd - the stick being referenced was cited as being used to hold down
the clothes and by itself this had nothing to do with the Misskelley
confession. Furthermore, the gross oversight in not collecting it
as evidence, one of the few items that had been certainly handled by
the murderer, was never explained.
Ridge: Yes sir, that's correct.
Price: Ok. So that stick was not the stick that was at the crime scene?
Ridge: Yes sir, it is the stick that was at the crime scene.
Alright, so - I guess I'm confused. At the time, you did not take that
stick into evidence - at the time that y'all recovered the bodies?
Ridge: No sir. I didn't take this stick into evidence until the statement of Jessie Misskelley in which he said a stick -
Price: Your Honor! Move for a mistrial. Your Honor! [ibid]
The mistrial hearing took place out of the hearing of the jury. It was brief and dramatic. The
arguments reflected what was asked and said. Judge Burnett lead
the argument against a mistrial with the prosecution barely getting a
word in. Between the time when it was made
certain the jury could not hear until Burnett formally declared,
"Denied" there were 42 statements. The defense made twenty of these,
Burnett made sixteen, and Fogleman made six. Of those six, three were
to ask that the testimony be played back and one was to ask permission to
speak. Burnett phrased the precipitating exchange as:
You [Price] said, "I'm confused on that, you mean you didn't take the
stick on - on the day that you were first there" - I'm paraphrasing.
And then you said, "Did you go back later?" and he [Ridge] said "Yes
sir, I went back after Jessie Misskelley's statement." [Burnett, Echols/Baldwin trial]
Burnett went on to say Price's question asked for why he went back and
the answer was appropriate to the form of the question. "He
basically asked him, "Well, why did you go back?" and he was proceeding
to tell him why." [Burnett, ibid]
said that there was nothing in the question that required Ridge's
response and asked repeatedly that the actual testimony be played back
for consideration. In an odd twist, the prosecution also asked
repeatedly that the tape be played back. Burnett refused: "I
heard it. I know what he said and in my opinion, it's not - it's not
error in the first place." [Burnett, ibid]
Two matters were of importance. First, whether an error was
made when Ridge responded in such a manner, and second whether what
happened merited a mistrial. Burnett said there was not an error
(quoted above). Secondly, he ruled against a mistrial because (1)
no error was made, (2) the jury (and everyone) knew of the existence of
the confessions and (3) Ridge's comment was on its existence not its
content. Furthermore, Burnett stated that a mistrial was a harsh
remedy. Burnett denied the mistrial and denied a severance of
the question and answer. There was no "why" being asked. It
was a yes or no question. The comment made by Ridge did include
the content of Misskelley's confession, the fact that Misskelley had
mentioned a stick, giving an important validation to this piece of
wood. Burnett overruled even the prosecution's wishes that the
statements be played back.
Defense attorney Davidson: I don't think he said that, Your Honor. We would like to ask the tape be played back and see what it says.
Later, after the motion for mistrial was denied, the defense aggressively attacked Ridge for his delay in
retrieving the sticks - this time without incident.
Fogleman: Well, let's play it back.
Fogleman: Let's play it back.
Davidson: That's what we say.
Your Honor, the state submits that - and maybe it might be good to play
back the question and what the answer was. [Echols/Baldwin trial]
Davidson: And you left that at the scene, is that correct?
The defense ridiculed the recovery of the sticks again in their closing arguments.
Ridge: That's correct.
Did a lightbulb ever go off in your heading thinking when you pulled
that out that there may be some evidential value in that stick - and
you just left it out there? Anything ever go through your mind like
Ridge: Not on that day it didn't, no sir. [ibid]
Then, Officer Ridge hits the jackpot. "I'll go back in July and
find the murder weapon!" Take this stick. It's evidence.
Take this stick, it just crumbles. The bark just crumbles. Was
there any of this -- was there any of this on any of the injuries?
Dr. Peretti said no. It just crumbles. Is there any blood on it,
any hair on it, anything on it? Yet they want you to believe
that’s it. That’s what they want you to believe. The
witnesses won’t tell you that, but these prosecutors want you to
believe that’s it. Why else would it be here? Two
months after the crime when this murder weapon appears. [ibid]
The State had said, particularly the stick that was used to push
some of the clothing down in the water. Part of that stick was up above
the water. And the testimony was, yes when things are in water, it's
hard to get prints off of 'em, but if objects, you know, it's possible
to get fingerprints off objects that aren't in water. When the police
went to the crime scene and found that particular stick that was
wrapped around the clothing, what do they do with that stick? They left
it at the crime scene. And it wasn't until, not one, but two months
later, that Detective Ridge went back out there and found that stick
and I think found another one. [ibid]
No tissue, blood or fingerprints were found on the sticks. The
prosecution did put on a witness to say there was evidence that one of
the sticks had been handled. Ralph Turbyfill was the Chief Latent Fingerprints Examiner with the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory.
Alright. I want to show you what's been introduced as State's Exhibit
53. Do you recognize that? [Exhibit 53 had been previously
identified as E-17]
Amino acids are one
of the basic building blocks of all life, including bacterial, algae,
plant and animal. Although it is possible that this stick was
handled (Ridge does not appear to be wearing gloves while holding E-139 in the above
photo), it is also possible this was a non-specific reaction. It
was certain that the stick used to hold down the clothes had been
handled, but this showed no reaction.
Turbyfill: Yes, I do.
Fogleman: Alright. And did you also examine that item?
Turbyfill: I examined this item, this item was uh, processed using a chemical
called ninhydrin. N-I-N-H-Y-D-R-I-N, which is an amino acid indicator.
On paper, cardboard, and unpainted wood, that chemical is used and it
turns the fingerprints a light purple or violet, you can -- there are
indications that amino acids are present on this, however, there are no
latent fingerprints of value for identification.
Fogleman: Alright. Alright. Ok. And what - I'm a little confused - what is the purpose of the thing about the amino acids?
The body has amino acids in it and one of the chemicals that we use
reacts or colors that particular amino acid. And this pink reaction is
the result of the coloring of that amino acid. Which uh - fingerprints
has that amino acid and on paper, unpainted wood, and cardboard we can
detect fingerprints using that chemical. So - I mean that, just because
there's reaction, that doesn't mean it was handled or that it was a
Fogleman: Ok. So it could mean that it was handled or it could be from something in the water?
Turbyfill: That's correct. It's possibly because it was handled.
The three sticks.