A Texas man convicted of setting a fire that killed his two stepsons was granted a new trial Wednesday by the state’s highest criminal court, which sided with experts who question the fire investigation used to convict him.
Ed Graf’s case is one of several flagged by a new state panel re-examining arson investigations. The Texas state fire marshal is working with criminal justice advocates who say many arson convictions have been won with the help of faulty scientific conclusions.
Graf was given life in prison for the 1986 fire in a backyard shed that killed 9-year-old Joby and 8-year-old Jason. Four reviews of the original fire forensics in Graf’s case, including one commissioned by prosecutors, found investigators may have drawn the wrong conclusions from photos of charring and burn patterns and that the fire could have been an accident.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Graf’s conviction set aside Wednesday.
“False expert testimony at (Graf’s) trial violated his due process rights,” the court said in its order.
The court declined to issue a finding of actual innocence for Graf, siding with a state district judge and prosecutors. The case now goes back to district court in Waco, where Graf could ask for bond pending a new trial. Prosecutors did not have immediate comment.
The original investigation determined charring was deepest near the shed entrance and on the doors. Investigators then pointed to “alligator” charring and other patterns to suggest a quick fire started by an accelerant like lighter fluid.
Experts now say those patterns could have been caused by a condition known as “flashover,” when a fire escalates to a point where the whole room is in flames. At flashover, deep burn patterns can appear all over a scene and make it much more difficult to predict where a fire began.
They also say the high amount of carbon monoxide in both boys’ bodies suggests a slower fire, not one started by an accelerant.
Prosecutors and Graf’s ex-wife, Clare Bradburn, point to several points of evidence they say implicate Graf. Bradburn has said she remembers Graf acting suspiciously before and after the blaze. She said he told her on the day of the fire that both boys were dead when firefighters had only found one body. He took out life insurance policies in the months beforehand, and he didn’t buy allergy medicine or more cereal for the boys on schedule – something out of character for someone known to be highly organized.
Bradburn has said she’s ready to testify at a new trial and believes Graf will be found guilty.
“When you have the truth on your side, when you have memories of specific things, words that were said, pictures in my mind that will never go away – it’s an imprint on my heart,” Bradburn said in an earlier interview.
The state Innocence Project and State Fire Marshal Chris Connealy have been working together to identify problematic arson cases. A panel of six experts will begin reviewing cases next month.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, called the court’s ruling for Graf “wind in the sails” for his group’s effort to highlight problems with fire investigation science in Texas cases.
The ruling was “a beginning of the process of significant reform to an area of the law that has needed reform for a long time,” he said.
Graf, in a recent prison interview, said he had faith he would be exonerated by the new review of the fire science in his case.
“I know that there will be people that will never change their mind, and of course, there will be people that will,” Graf said. “It’s difficult for me to believe they can’t believe the science. The science, it’s pretty accurate now.”
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