Cook County Prosecutors Agree Chicago Man Convicted of Arson in 1996 Should Get New Trial Due to Evolution in Fire Science

Two decades after Adam Gray was convicted of setting a fire that killed two people in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, Cook County prosecutors agree that he deserves a new trial because advancements in fire science have “partially invalidated” expert testimony crucial to his conviction. In Gray’s case, police and prosecutors alleged that in March of 1993 the then 14 year-old became angry with a girl who rejected him and retaliated by igniting an accelerant he poured on the back porch of the home where she resided. While the girl and her parents escaped the fire, two second-floor tenants died. At trial, prosecutors presented testimony from two fire investigators who stated that they discovered charring and deep burn patterns in the area of origin consistent with the use of an accelerant. Additionally, a gas station clerk testified that Gray bought gas shortly before the fire and prosecutors presented evidence that a milk jug found in the alley behind the home after the fire contained an accelerant. Lastly, prosecutors relied on Gray’s confession that he bought gasoline to set the fire even though he later denied the admissions and stated that he confessed only due to pressure from the police.

In the years since Gray’s conviction, his legal team set out to challenge the physical evidence used to support the arson conviction. In that regard, Gray’s attorneys retained experts Gerald Hurst and John Lentini to evaluate the arson investigation and the validity of the fire investigators’ testimony at trial. According to Hurst, fire investigators at the scene were too quick to conclude that the charring and burn patterns were evidence of arson and thus failed to complete a thorough investigation to rule out accidental causes. Additionally, Lentini stated that substance found in the milk jug behind the home was not actually present at the scene. Lentini futher concluded that neither the substance in the milk jug, nor the substance found at the scene, were effective accelerants which could have been used to spread the fire.

Although the findings of Hurst and Lentini were initially met with resistance, prosecutors have now relented after determining that the new evidence presented and advancements in fire science were sufficient to grant Gray a new trial. Prosecutors and Gray’s defense team filed a joint motion for a new trial in July and a judge’s decision on the request is expected in the coming weeks.

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