After 14 years in prison for the arson murders of his two young sons, Daniel Dougherty has a new trial. Dougherty has always maintained his innocence. The PA Supreme Court denied a state appeal of the new trial ruling paving the way for a retrial.
“We’re looking forward to the day when we pick him up at the gates and bring him home,” defense lawyer Shannon Farmer said.
Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, said, “We are still investigating our legal options. No decision has been made yet on this case.” The case brings national implications much like the retrial of Ed Graf in Texas. The Dougherty case is a prime example of evolving forensic science that has freed some people and brought the guilt of others into question. Today, scientists dismiss what was once thought of as 100% proof of arson, fueling a debate over how the justice system should handle convictions based on now-discarded scientific beliefs.
Dougherty, 54, was arrested 14 years after a 1985 fire killed his 3-year-old and 4-year-old sons, John and Daniel Jr. At the 2000 cold case trial, John Quinn who was the Assistant Fire Marshal at the time of the fire testified that the fire started in three places, an indicator of arson; a love seat, a sofa, and a spot beneath a dining room table. He ruled out all other accidental causes.
Dougherty’s defense attorney, Thomas Ciccone, now deceased, never rebutted the testimony by calling experts to discuss the changes in science since 1985. Earlier this year, a 3-judge panel of the PA Superior Court ordered a new trial because of inadequate representation. The failure of Dougherty’s defense attorney to present an opposing scientific opinion to the state’s witness so skewed the proceedings that “no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence took place.”
The D.A.’s office sought to have that ruling reconsidered by the full Superior Court, but their request was denied. So, prosecutors appealed to the PA Supreme Court. The high court denied the petition and in doing so affirmed the lower court ruling of a new trial.
“We are absolutely elated,” said defense co-counsel David Fryman.
He and Farmer, who have represented Dougherty for more than a decade, gave him the news in a phone call to Greene prison in Waynesburg, Pa.
“He’s obviously very happy,” Fryman said, “but also frustrated, bitter, and angry, and wants to get out of jail.”
Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, said a retrial was overdue.
“We know the information given to his jury was wrong,” she said. “The science has changed so much, no one will give that testimony now.”
Dougherty’s case has been compared to the Texas capital case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed in 2004 for the arson deaths of his three daughters. Five years later, the Texas Forensic Science Commission called the forensics in his case into question. In Texas, at least 6 convictions have been called into question through investigations, but cases all over the nation are being questioned. Over the summer, Han Tak Lee, 79, was released after his conviction and life sentence were overturned. He had been convicted of the 1989 fire death of his daughter, Ji Yun Lee, 20. He served 24 years. Dougherty was sentenced to death, but his sentence was converted to life in 2012 through an agreement between the prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Prosecutors alleged that Dougherty sought to hurt two women: his girlfriend, Kathleen Schuler and his sons’ mother, Kathleen Dippel. According to prosecutors, he wanted to destroy the house of his girlfriend and kill the children of his estranged wife.
Over the last 20 years scientific studies have disproven what once were considered solid indicators of arson. For example, it was once believed that burn patterns on a floor indicated arson by accelerant, but since then it has been discovered that the marks are common in accidental fires. Dougherty said he was asleep on the living room couch, his children were in a second-floor bedroom. He awoke to see curtains on fire and he ran outside. He could not reach his sons because of heavy smoke and flames.
“We’re hopeful the commonwealth will do what in our mind is the right thing,” Dougherty’s attorneys said, “which is to recognize the consensus among the fire-science community.”