West Virginia Court Denies Petitioner’s Attempt to Use Advances in Fire Science and NFPA 921 to Obtain a New Trial After Murder Conviction

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On June 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia denied a petitioner’s habeas corpus petition challenging his 1995 first degree murder conviction. In Anstey v. Ballard, No. 15-0067, 2016 W. Va. LEXIS 428 (June 2, 2016), the petitioner asserted that he was entitled to a new trial because the advancement in fire science, specifically the application of NFPA 921, during the last 20 years constituted newly-discovered evidence resulting in a fundamental unfairness in his original trial.

Evidence from the underlying trial established that the petitioner moved into a house trailer occupied by his grandmother. Multiple witnesses testified they heard arguments between the grandmother and petitioner and observed bruises on her. Witnesses also testified that the grandmother requested that the petitioner be removed from her Will, however, that she was killed in a fire at her trailer before the requested change could be made.

The petitioner was charged with first degree murder and, at trial, the State’s fire origin and cause experts testified that the fire originated in a toaster in the trailer’s kitchen and was caused by the tampering of the appliance. The experts further testified there was a second, unconnected fire in the trailer that originated in the bedroom. Alternatively, the petitioner’s origin and cause experts testified that the fire originated in a living room lamp and that there was no evidence to indicate that the toaster was tampered with. The petitioner was found guilty of first degree murder on September 8, 1995.

On May 12, 2014, the petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus asserting that advancements in fire science and amendments to NFPA 921 since his conviction constituted newly discovered evidence. The petition was denied and the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia upheld the lower court’s ruling. In support, the court noted that the petitioner failed to cite to any authority that NFPA 921 was compulsory in West Virginia and that an expert’s opinion could not be based on other methodology. The court further found that periodic amendments to NFPA 921 could not be considered newly-discovered evidence. Lastly, the court pointed out that NFPA 921 was in existence at the time of trial and thus the petitioner already had an opportunity to challenge the State’s fire investigation methods. Accordingly, as the alleged newly discovered evidence would not have changed the jury’s verdict, the petitioner’s petition was properly denied.

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