David Burnett (politician)

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David Burnett
Member of the Arkansas Senate
from the 22nd district
Assumed office
January 14, 2013
Preceded by Jeremy Hutchinson
Member of the Arkansas Senate
from the 15th district
In office
January 10, 2011 – January 10, 2013
Preceded by Steve Bryles
Succeeded by David J. Sanders
Personal details
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Sonja Burnett
Residence Osceola, Arkansas, USA
Alma mater University of Arkansas (B.S. 1963, J.D. 1966)
Occupation Judge, Lawyer
Website [1]

David Burnett (born 1942 or 1943[1]) is a Democratic member of the Arkansas State Senate, formerly from District 15, which prior to 2013 comprised Mississippi and Poinsett counties in eastern Arkansas. Before he entered the Senate, Burnett had been a judge.[2] Burnett is notable for being the original trial judge of the West Memphis Three case.[3]

West Memphis Three case[edit]

Burnett was the presiding judge in the murder trials of Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, collectively known as the West Memphis Three. In February 1994 after a jury convicted Misskelley of one court of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder, Burnett sentenced Misskelley, then 18 years old, to life in prison plus 40 years.[4] In March 1994 after a jury convicted Echols and Baldwin of three counts of capital murder, Burnett sentenced Echols to death and Baldwin, 17 at the time, to life in prison without parole.[5]

In 2007, new DNA testing became available that was technologically possible at the time of the crime, and produced evidence that hairs found at the crime scene did not match Misskelley, Baldwin or Echols and possibly matched the stepfather of one of the victims. Based on this, all three defendants asked Burnett for a new trail. In September 2008, Burnett denied retrials for all three saying the new evidence was "inconclusive".[6]

In September 2008, attorney (now[when?] judge) Daniel Stidham, who represented Misskelley in 1994, testified at a postconviction relief hearing. Stidham testified under oath that during the trial that Burnett erred by making an improper communication with the jury during its deliberations. Stidham overheard Burnett discuss taking a lunch break with the jury foreman and heard the foreman reply that the jury was almost finished. He testified Judge Burnett responded, "You'll need food for when you come back for sentencing," and that the foreman asked in return what would happen if the defendant was acquitted. Stidham said the judge closed the door without answering. He testified that his own failure to put this incident on the court record and his failure to meet the minimum requirements in state law to represent a defendant in a capital murder case was evidence of ineffective assistance of counsel and that Misskelley's conviction should therefore be vacated.[7]

In January 2010, Burnett denied motions for all Baldwin and Misskelley to receive new trials based on inadequate representation during their original trials.[8]

In November 2010 after Burnett had retired from the bench and had been elected to the Arkansas Senate, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered new evidentiary hearings for all three defendants based on the new DNA evidence. The state's high court rebuked Burnett's 2008 decision not to grant Echols a new trial based on the DNA evidence.[9]

The three were released from prison in August 2011 after all three pleaded guilty to first-degree murder using a legal mechanism called an Alford plea, which allows the defendant to maintain their innocence while conceding that there is enough evidence to possibly convict them at trial. Under the plea deals, all three were resentenced to time-served for the murders (18 years and 75 days) and immediately released from prison.[10] In February 2012, Burnett gave an interview stating that he was unhappy with the decision to release the pair saying "I'm not real happy with the outcome. I would have preferred to see them have a new trial", but stood by actions in the case saying "Frankly, everything I did was affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court."[this quote needs a citation]

State Senate[edit]

In May 2010, Burnett defeated Blytheville Mayor Barrett E. Harrison in the Democratic primary for the state's 15th Senate district to succeed the term-limited Sen. Steve Bryles.[11] Burnett took almost 64 percent of approximately 8,600 votes cast.[12] Burnett won election in the general election running unopposed.[11] Due to redistricting, Burnett ran for re-election in 2012 in the 22nd Senate District. He was elected both in the Democratic primary and general election without opposition.

In 2015, Burnett introduced a bill in the Arkansas Senate that would have abolished the death penalty in Arkansas.[13] The bill failed to pass, officially dying when the state Senate adjourned sine die, which means the chamber ended its business for the legislative session.[14]


  1. ^ interview by Lindsey Fry, November 2008, published 2009-06-10 (retrieved 2011-08-23): "in 1975 at age 32"
  2. ^ Biography of David Burnett, Senate District 15
  3. ^ WM3.org - Dan Stidham's Case Synopsis
  4. ^ "Youth Is Convicted In Slaying of 3 Boys In an Arkansas City". The New York Times. February 5, 1994. 
  5. ^ "Teens Found Guilty In Boys' Slayings". Free Lance-Star. March 19, 1994. Retrieved December 4, 2010. 
  6. ^ Zeman, Jill (September 10, 2008). "Judge rejects request for new trial for 3 men convicted of 1993 slayings of 3 Arkansas boys". Nesting.com. Associated Press. Retrieved January 25, 2012. 
  7. ^ The Associated Press (September 30, 2008). "Former lawyer supports effort for a new trial". Arkansas Online. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc. Retrieved January 24, 2012. 
  8. ^ Ashley Blackstone (January 20, 2010). "Judge says no new trial for Baldwin & Misskelley in WM3 Case". THV11.com. Retrieved March 17, 2015. 
  9. ^ Associated Press (November 4, 2010). "Court orders new hearing for 'West Memphis 3'". NBC News. Retrieved March 17, 2015. 
  10. ^ Robertson, Campbell (August 19, 2011). "Deal Frees ‘West Memphis Three’ in Arkansas". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-08-28. 
  11. ^ a b "Judge in West Memphis case wins Senate seat". Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Associated Press. May 18, 2010. Retrieved March 17, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Statewide Results by Contest 2010 Preferential Primary Election & Non Partisan Judicial General Election". Arkansas Secretary of State. June 18, 2010. Retrieved March 17, 2010. 
  13. ^ Max Brantley (February 10, 2015). "Bill filed to end the death penalty". Arkansas Times. Retrieved June 8, 2016. 
  14. ^ "AR SB298 2015, 90th General Assembly". LegiScan. Retrieved June 8, 2016.