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Surprise court hearing for "West Memphis 3" spurs hopes

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK (Reuters) - A judge has called a surprise hearing for Friday concerning three men - known as the West Memphis Three - convicted of "satanic" killings in 1993 of three 8-year-old Cub Scouts in Arkansas.

The announcement on Thursday fueled speculation among supporters that the hearing could mean good news - including a new trial and possible release from prison - for those who believe the men were wrongly convicted.

The Craighead County Circuit court in Jonesboro, Arkansas, will "take up certain matters pertaining to the cases" of convicted murderers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., according to a statement issued by Craighead County Circuit Judge David N. Laser.

Last month, a status report on new DNA evidence was filed in Craighead County court. It failed to link the crimes to the men convicted in the murders, advocates said at the time.

Laser on Friday will hold one private session in chambers followed by a public session with victim families, family members of the defendants, and media.

Echols is now awaiting execution on Death Row for the murders. Baldwin and Misskelley are serving life sentences. All three have now served about 18 years in jail.

The murders of the Cub Scouts -- Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and James Michael Moore -- rocked the community of West Memphis. Police called the murders "satanic" in nature because the children's naked bodies had been bound and mutilated.

The West Memphis Three, who were teenagers at the time of the murders, have always maintained their innocence in the deaths of the boys in the Arkansas-Tennessee border town.

Prison officials confirmed that the three men were turned over to Craighead County officials from the Arkansas Department of Corrections on Thursday.

"Craighead County officials picked them up around midday from ADC with all of their possessions," Shea Wilson, a prison spokesman, told Reuters.

This led to speculation on the internet among West Memphis Three advocates that a release for two, or all three, could be announced as part of a deal to include a new trial.

The judge issued a gag order for both sides in the case several months ago. So attorneys for the West Memphis Three and the Arkansas Attorney General would not comment on Thursday.

The killings received international attention in 1993. Two HBO documentaries have been produced about the murders, and a third is planned for later this year.

The case continues to attract celebrity activists. Last summer, singer Patti Smith, actor Johnny Depp and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder appeared at a benefit for the West Memphis Three in Little Rock.

An evidentiary hearing ordered by the Arkansas Supreme Court last November is already scheduled for December 5. It is unclear if this will be affected by Friday's hearing.

Death penalty opponents are hoping for exoneration on Friday for all three prisoners.

"If it is exoneration, then Arkansas has just joined the other states that showed the dishonor of sentencing an innocent person to death," said Christian Ruud, executive director for Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

(Edited by Karen Brooks and Peter Bohan)

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