Some of the Arson Convictions Now Being Questioned

December 11, 2006

A handful of arson convictions that relied largely on expert testimony are being re-examined because of changes in the scientific understanding of fire. Some are already in court, while in others, defense teams are putting together a case.

Among the cases identified by different investigators and lawyers working on these new challenges to arson:

• Louis C. Taylor, sentenced to life for a 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson, Ariz., that left 29 people dead. Prosecutors alleged the then 16-year-old Taylor set the fire so he could steal from hotel rooms. The Arizona Justice Project is preparing a court petition to seek a re-examination of the evidence against him.

• Kenneth Richey, who spent 20 years on death row for a 1986 fire in Columbus Grove, Ohio, that killed a toddler. A federal appeals court overturned his conviction, raising questions about whether the fire was arson at all, but the U.S. Supreme Court last year reinstated his conviction and death sentence.

• Greg Brown, convicted of arson and murder, and his mother, Darlene Buckner, convicted of insurance fraud, for a 1995 fire in Pittsburgh that took the lives of three firefighters. The Innocence Institute at Point Park University in Pittsburgh is working on the case.

• George Souliotes, sentenced to life in prison for a 1997 fire in Modesto, Calif., that killed a mother and her two children. Souliotes, a landlord, had been trying to evict the family and investigators claimed he was trying to collect insurance money. The California Supreme Court rejected his latest appeal.

• Letitia Smallwood, sentenced to life in prison for a 1972 apartment house fire in Harrisburg, Pa. Prosecutors alleged that she started the fire because she was angry with her boyfriend and his live-in girlfriend. The question of arson was never originally disputed in court by her defense attorney.

• Garland Leon “Butch” Martin, sentenced to three life sentences for the deaths of his common-law wife and her two children in a 1998 fire in Midland, Texas. Defense experts contend investigators ignored evidence of an accident.

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