New Technology Sets Aside 1988 Arson Double Murder Conviction

Judge Holding Documents

Richard Wright was convicted in 1988 of setting a 1986 house fire that killed two teenage girls and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Mr. Wright long maintained his innocence and his initial appeal, based on the credibility of witness who testified that Wright confessed to the crime, was denied in 1995. Mr. Wright ultimately appealed to the New York State Supreme Court after his family hired an attorney who uncovered flaws with the origin and cause investigation conducted by arson investigators and subsequently filed a motion to overturn the conviction arguing that new scientific technology debunked the methods used. Specifically, Wright’s attorney argued that, during their investigation, despite being unable to find an accelerant, the arson investigators concluded that burn patterns indicated the presence of an ...
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Eastern District of Pennsylvania Excludes Portion of Electrical Engineering Expert’s Fire Causation Opinion

iStock_000001627771_Large On May 18, 2017, the United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, ruled that a plaintiff’s electrical engineering expert could not testify regarding the origin of a fire and further excluded a portion of his testimony regarding fire cause. In State Farm Fire & Casualty Company v. Hartman Contractors, et al., 2017 WL 2180292 (E.D. Pa. May 18, 2017), the defendant contractor installed framing and drywall to finish the basement of a newly constructed townhouse in Phoenixville, PA. Approximately eight years after this work was completed, a fire broke out in the basement of the townhouse and caused significant smoke and fire damage. As part of the fire insurance claim process, State Farm retained an origin and cause investigator who examined the fire scene and concluded that the fire ...
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Federal Judge Denies Motion to Bar Fire Investigators’ Opinions in Strict Liability Lawsuit For Adherence to NFPA 921 and Industry Standards

iStock_000016880645_Large In Harris Caprock Communications, Inc. v. Trippe Manufacturing Co. d/b/a Tripp Lite d/b/a Tripp Lite Holdings, Inc. (No. 15-0130), a Texas federal judge denied a motion to exclude the opinions of two fire investigators’ regarding the origin and cause of a fire in a strict products liability case, as the methodology employed was approved both within the industry as well as under the National Fire Protection Association Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations (NFPA 921). In March 2013, Harris CapRock Communications sustained a fire that the Houston Arson Bureau classified as being caused by arson. When arson investigators arrived at the scene, they opined that two carts manufactured by Trippe Manufacturing were the source of the fire. Harris CapRock filed suit against Trippe, asserting claims of strict products liability and ...
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When a Product Expert Has No Experience with Product Allegedly Causing Fire: A Recent Exclusion and Considerations

Toaster on fire An Illinois federal district judge recently excluded certain testimony offered by a plaintiff’s expert in a product liability case. The ruling offers an opportunity to stay abreast of recent expert witness rulings and the viability of an argument routinely used by the defense — that the plaintiff’s expert lacks any experience with the specific product that allegedly caused the fire. Although a common argument, it can give rise to a number of case-specific considerations. The Case The recent case of Ostrinsky v. Black & Decker (U.S.), Inc., et. al, Case No. 15 C 1545 (N.D. IL, November 16, 2016) is instructive on this issue. In Ostrinksy, it was alleged that the decedent died when a toaster made by Black and Decker (B&D) allegedly failed to pop up bagel slices and ...
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Kentucky Judge Sets Aside Manslaughter Conviction in Deadly Trailer Fire Case After Finding it was Based on Unreliable Forensic Evidence

Some Fire line do not cross tape On December 28, 2016, Logan County Commonwealth Circuit Judge Tyler Gill granted Robert Yell a new trial and vacated his 2006 manslaughter conviction in a case involving a September 11, 2004 mobile home fire that resulted the death of Yell’s 2-year-old son. Although the conviction was upheld on two prior occasions, Yell was successful in contending that forensic evidence admitted at trial to prove that the fire had multiple points of origin was scientifically unreliable, thus denying him of due process. The evidence in question consisted of expert witness testimony that holes in the floor and irregular burn patterns on the wall of the structure indicated the use of an accelerant and the use of an accelerant-detecting dog that indicated the presence of an ignitable liquid at multiple locations in ...
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Eastern District of California Throws Out Civil Rights Lawsuit Against Modesto County Officials in Wrongful Conviction Case

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-gavel-image21788164 On January 15,1997, a rental home in Modesto, California owned by George Souliotes burned down, killing tenant Michelle Jones and her two children. Authorities arrested Souliotes, charging him with three counts of homicide and one count of arson. At trial, fire investigators from the Modesto County Fire Department testified that the fire was caused by arson. They relied on several factors to support their conclusion: the fire being unusually hot; “pour patterns” on the floor where flammable liquids obviously had been poured and ignited; “deep charring” on the walls; insufficient fuel load in the house to sustain such an intense fire unless an ignitable liquid, i.e., an accelerant, had been added; a hand-held hydrocarbon detector indicated the presence of ignitable liquids at the scene; and an eyewitness testified that a ...
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Fifth Circuit Affirms District Court’s Exclusion of Opinions of Plaintiffs’ Expert Engineers Regarding Cause of Vehicle Fire and Defective Design of Fuel Tank

78397252 On October 5, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit held that opinions of the plaintiffs’ expert engineers regarding the cause of a vehicle fire and the defective design of the vehicle’s fuel tank were properly excluded. In Sims v. Kia Motors of Am., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 18116 (5th Cir. Tex. Oct. 5, 2016), Henry Sims, Sr. was a passenger in the backseat of a 2010 Kia Soul when it collided with another car in an intersection, spun out and collided with a yield sign. As the Soul continued forward, the immovable base of the sign passed beneath the front bumper and continued along the underside of the vehicle until it tore a large hole in the fuel tank causing gasoline to leak onto the roadway. ...
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Environmental Group Files Federal Lawsuit Seeking Invalidation of Emergency Firefighting Regulation and Review of U.S. Forest Service’s Firefighting Tactics After Agency Destroys Critical Wildlife Habitat to Fight Forest Fire

o inferno das chamas e o seu combate Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) recently filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Washington against the U.S. Forest Service in response to the agency’s decision to cut 114 acres of timber and critical spotted owl habitat to fight a forest fire that ignited on June 29, 2015 in North Central Washington. Significantly, the fire never came close to the area cut by the Forest Service. In Case No. 2:16-cv-00293-TOR, FSEEE seeks to rescind a 2008 regulation invoked by the Forest Service while fighting the June 29, 2015 fire that permits the agency to suspend all environmental laws after declaring a state of emergency during fire suppression activities. The suit further demands that the Forest Service’s firefighting program be reviewed to assess the effectiveness of its tactics and ...
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Sixth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Civil Rights Action Based Upon Wrongful Conviction in Arson/Murder Case

Judge Holding Documents In 1986, David Gavitt was sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted him of arson and felony murder stemming from a fire that took the life of his wife and two daughters. In 2012, the state court granted Gavitt’s unopposed motion for relief from judgment due to newly discovered evidence based on advancements in fire science. The judgment was vacated, charges dismissed, and Gavitt was released from jail. Gavitt later brought a civil rights action against numerous city and county entities, prosecutors, police officers, and investigators that participated in the prosecution against him. He claimed the defendants intentionally misrepresented evidence and failed to disclose exculpatory evidence, thus violating his due process rights. All defendants moved to dismiss the pleadings and all but one of the motions were dismissed ...
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In a Split Decision, Seventh Circuit Affirms District Court’s Denial of Habeas Corpus in Arson/Murder Case

In 1993, Glenn Patrick Bradford, a then Evansville, Indiana police officer, was convicted of murder and arson and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Bradford filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal court, but the Southern District of Indiana denied review last November. In Bradford v. Brown, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 14260, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Bradford’s request. In a factually rich opinion, Judge Posner, joined by Judge Kanne, found that Bradford failed to present sufficient evidence to establish that he was innocent of arson and murder and that his original defense counsel was ineffective. Judge Hamilton dissented arguing that the state did not present enough evidence to demonstrate that Bradford set the fire that killed his ex-lover. Judge Hamilton further stated that defense counsel’s ...
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