Daniel Dougherty has always maintained that he didn’t set the fire that killed his two young sons in 1985.  His case is often compared to Cameron Todd Willingham’s controversial case.  Willingham was executed in 2004 for the deaths of his three young daughters.  More than a handful of experts before and since have said that a better understanding of fires could have shown Willingham was innocent.  Dougherty maintains he is the vicim of flawed forensic science.

Officers arrested Dougherty 14 years after the fire.  A fire marshal testified that the fire was arson.  A jury took three hours to find Dougherty guilty of murder and 3 1/2 hours to sentence him to die.  But, since the time of the fire and continuing today, forensics have radically changed and what was once proof of arson is now the opposite.

Superior Court has ordered a new trial in the deaths of 3-year-old John and 4-year-old Daniel Jr., 13 1/2 years after Dougherty was convicted and almost 30 years after the fire destroyed a family.  The court said that Dougherty’s trial defense failed to challenge the state’s scientific conclusions.  This skewed the jury’s conclusion, there was “no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence…,” the court wrote.

If the jury heard and believed an authority on the advanced fire science of the time, it “would have had reasonable doubt about [Dougherty’s] guilt and would have been compelled to acquit him,” the court wrote.

The District Attorney’s Office has asked the court to reconsider its ruling.  The court rendered a 3-0 unanimous decision to overturn the conviction and sentence.  “We stand by the conviction. We stand by the case,” said Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for District Attorney Seth Williams.

Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said she was encouraged by the court’s ruling, “I’m hopeful the D.A. will review this and say, ‘What’s the right thing to do?  I would say, the right thing is to see what a new jury says.”

Dougherty’s death sentence was vacated in 2012 by an agreement between the prosecutors and defense over the ineffective assistance of Dougherty’s trial counsel, Thomas Ciccone.  In a letter to The Philadelphia Inquirer last month, Dougherty said he hoped “the truth will be known and this innocent man will go home to his loved ones.”

Prosecutors allege a vengeful Dougherty set the fire to hurt his girlfriend, Kathleen Schuler, with whom he lived, and the mother of his sons, Kathleen Dippel.  Prosecutors said he sought to destroy the house of one and the children of the other.  During the last 20 years, a stream of scientific studies has deflated what once were considered solid indicators of arson. In Pennsylvania and around the country, inmates have challenged convictions based upon the disproved science.  For example, burn patterns on the floor were once seen as evidence of an accelerant, they are now known to be common to most fires, including accidental fires.  Finely cracked glass was also once a sign of an accelerant, scientists now know that it is actually caused by rapid cooling when someone is attempting to put the fire out using water.

In 1985, Dougherty was a 25-year-old mechanic, who dropped out of high school, and had issues with alcohol.  Police suspected him almost immediately.  Dougherty waived his right to remain silent and told detectives, an hour after the fire, that “I ain’t got nothing to remain silent about.”  Five days later, both he and his girlfriend failed separate polygraph tests.  With insufficient evidence, Dougherty was released.  In 1999, he was arrested after his estranged second wife, Adrienne Sussman, battling Dougherty for custody of their child, claimed that he confessed to her.

She was never called to testify instead two jailhouse informants said Dougherty confessed to them.  Dougherty has always said that he was sleeping on the couch.  His children were sleeping on the second-floor in their bedroom.  He awoke to see the curtains on fire and ran outside.  He tried to reach his sons, but was forced back by heavy smoke and fire.  Police officer Jesse Simonson said that he had to physically stop Dougherty from going back in the burning building.  The officer claims that Dougherty, when asked his name, replied, “My name is mud and I should die for what I did.”  To police, the statement was an admission of guilt.  Dougherty took the stand in his own defense and told the jury he tried to save his children twice.  Police testified he told them he couldn’t get back in the house at all.

The Superior Court based its new trial ruling on both ineffective assistance of defense counsel and flawed forensics.

At the trial, John Quinn, the key prosecution witness who 15 years earlier had been the assistant fire marshal and first investigator on the scene, said the fire started in three places:  on a love seat, a sofa, and a spot under the dining-room table, a classic sign of arson.  Quinn told the jury that he didn’t believe Dougherty tried to save his children because he showed no sign of exposure to the fire.  Dougherty’s trial lawyer never consulted or called an expert to tell the jury about the new advances in fire study between 1985 and 2000.

Ciccone “could have mounted a convincing challenge to the substance of the charges,” the court wrote.

Angelo Pisani, a St. John’s University criminal justice associate professor and former coordinator of the New York City Arson Strike Force, testified in Dougherty’s initial appeal that the state’s investigation was based upon myths and misunderstandings.

He said in an interview, ”According to the science today, we can’t determine whether the fire was accidental or intentional.  I don’t think anybody should be incarcerated or executed because you don’t know the answer to whether a crime was committed.”

Nationally recognized investigator John Lentini of Scientific Fire Analysis L.L.C. in Florida testified that there are two key phenomenas to understand in this case:  flashover and full-room involvement.

During flashover, rising heat collects at the ceiling, radiates downward, causing the room to spontaneously combust in multiple areas.  Full-room involvement occurs when the fire consumes all the oxygen and the flames burn the floors, walls, tables, and chairs in search of oxygen.  These two occurrences make it almost impossible to determine a potential starting point or points for the fire.  He said, the cause of the fire should be “undetermined.”

The court wrote, that having an expert refute the findings of the state’s expert should have been the top priority of any competent defense attorney,

“such testimony, would tend to show that Lt. Quinn incorrectly identified multiple points of origin for the fire, that his conclusions lacked scientific underpinning, and that his opinions conflicted with principles of forensic fire investigation that were widely accepted at the time.”

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