Kentucky Judge Sets Aside Manslaughter Conviction in Deadly Trailer Fire Case After Finding it was Based on Unreliable Forensic Evidence

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 the home.

At a December 2016 evidentiary hearing , Yell’s experts testified that the technique of examining patterns and holes following a fire to determine cause and origin is an outdated practice that cannot be used to identify the presence of an accelerant because irregular patterns and holes are present in all fires with full-room involvement. Additionally, these experts testified that a laboratory analysis did not yield a positive result for accelerants in the areas where the canines detected their presence. Significantly, since 2006, the Canine Accelerant Detection Association found that without laboratory confirmation of an accelerant, a canine’s alert of an accelerant is not reliable for use in court.

In vacating the conviction, Judge Gill found that the evidence used to convict Yell was “based on obsolete and erroneous techniques.” In support, Judge Gill noted that the prosecution’s witnesses could not articulate in scientific terms the basis for their conclusions that the fire had multiple origins. Gill further stated “[i]f the testimony of either of these witnesses was in any way based upon their personal analysis of non-scientific evidence, the system failed.” Lastly, Judge Gill held, “[i]n the interest of justice, the Commonwealth is urged to re-examine the case utilizing trained fire investigators not previously involved. Scientific evidence should be evaluated separately from the other evidence in the case.”


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