Iowa Fire Marshal Mulls Review of 1997 Arson Case

By RYAN J. FOLEY | July 6, 2012

Iowa’s fire marshal said Tuesday he is considering whether to review the arson conviction of a man serving a life prison sentence for a fire that killed his wife and child, a case a prominent defense expert says was based on debunked investigative techniques.

Ray Reynolds’ office has received a request for the review from an attorney for Stephen Keyes, who was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and arson in a 1996 fire at his home in Springville, near Cedar Rapids.

Reynolds said he was consulting with the Iowa attorney general’s office to determine whether to grant the review, which would be the first of its kind since his office implemented a policy last year designed to prevent wrongful arson convictions in the face of changing fire science. The policy came after the case of Cameron Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 for a deadly fire that some experts now believe was accidental, and a national push for higher standards.

“Certainly the Willingham case is weighing on our mind as we’ve been asked to review this case,” Reynolds said. “If there are serious issues with the case, our policy stands that we will notify the prosecutor.”

The policy requires Reynolds to inform a prosecutor if he “has reason to believe” an arson conviction was based on science or methods that have been invalidated, and to offer help to determine whether a new look at the case would yield exculpatory evidence. The Innocence Project has praised Reynolds for adopting the policy, which requires his office to retain records related to arson investigations and use best practices developed by a national association whenever possible.

Prosecutors say Keyes set fire to his home on the day after Christmas in 1996 and prevented his wife and 2-year-old son from leaving by removing smoke detectors and putting a table in front of an exit. The two were found dead in a second-story bedroom, while Keyes and two other children escaped.

Prosecutors say Keyes was having an affair and money problems. Keyes has always maintained his innocence, and his lawyer argued at trial that he was ashamed that he didn’t try to rescue his wife and son.

Keyes is seeking a new trial based largely on a report from Gerald Hurst, a prominent defense expert from Texas who worked on the Willingham case and others, that concluded the investigation was based on techniques “long relegated to the category of old wives’ tales.” Hurst said an investigator jumped to the conclusion the fire was arson before ruling out potential electrical causes and improperly used a sniffing dog to confirm his suspicion that gasoline was used as an accelerant.

The arson determination was based on since-discredited beliefs that cement cracks and low burn patterns are arson indicators, Hurst’ said. The dog made several hits at the scene and was trained to sniff both gasoline and kerosene. It likely was detecting kerosene, later found in the garage, that could not have been used under the prosecution’s theory of the fire, Hurst wrote.

Hurst said his review casts doubt on theories that Keyes used a table to block the exit and disabled the fire detectors but that those issues were “somewhat irrelevant” since an arson was never properly determined.

Reynolds said he was not aware of the details in Keyes’ case, but that arson determinations based on cracked concrete and low burn patterns could be problematic. He cautioned that there were many factors to consider and outdated investigative techniques don’t automatically mean someone was wrongly convicted.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden, who prosecuted the case, said he would welcome the review.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it was arson that cost two people their lives,” he said. “There were just so many factual circumstances unique to this case that really made the arson science less of a factor.”

He said the evidence included the smoke detectors being taken down, an eyewitness who saw Keyes sitting in his van watching his home burn, and testimony from Keyes’ mistress and son.

Keyes’ attorney, Rockne Cole, said he was asking Reynolds to determine whether the determinations about the cause and origin of the fire were flawed, not whether Keyes is innocent. He said the case was the type that should be reviewed under Reynolds’ policy, which he praised.

“All we’re looking for is a review based upon sound scientific principles rather than discredited old wives’ tales,” he said. “I would hope the attorney general’s office would join us in the search for truth and science.”

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