Zachary Handley, 21, was finally exonerated after District Attorney John Morganelli declined to retry him for a 2007 fire that left 4 families homeless.  Handley served a year and a half in juvenile detention for the arson and owed $625,000 in restitution until a judge overturned his conviction realizing that his accuser was a serial arsonist.

In 2007, Handley was just 14 and in 8th grade when police came knocking at his home wanting to question him at the station.  Handley was accused by Karla Ann Dewey of setting a fire that gutted local row houses including Dewey’s three weeks before.  Dewey told police that she witnessed the kid standing on her porch with two other youths the night of the fire.  She also accused him of participating in a fire set at a local restaurant weeks before that.

Handley was interrogated for 90 minutes when his parents – at the urging of a detective – told him to confess.  He listened to his parents even though he was innocent.  It was almost Christmas and he was under the impression that he would be home for the holidays.  Soon after realizing that wasn’t true, he recanted.

Handley was convicted of two arsons and sentenced to 47 days in juvenile detention with an additional year at a boot camp for youth arsonists.  At the boot camp, he insisted he was innocent, but realized that if he didn’t admit false guilt he would never go home.

Handley was eventually able to return home, but not without a criminal record, an enormous debt, and a life changing label.

Eight years later, Judge Anthony Beltrami was assigned to several arson cases against Karla Dewey, the woman who accused Handley when he was a kid.  Dewey pled guilty in 2012 to burning down her rental home – endangering a toddler – as well as several attached homes and trying to set fire to the church she attended.  While reviewing her case, Judge Beltrami realized that he had serious concerns about her accusations against Handley.

Judge Beltrami conducted an investigation himself and concluded that the youth was falsely accused and his confession coerced.  Judge Beltrami believes that Dewey was responsible for the 2007 fire and “witnessed” Handley acting suspiciously to get away with it.

Judge Beltrami called Dewey a “serial arsonist”.

She is currently serving 11 years in prison for arson and child endangerment, but cannot be charged with the 2007 row house fire because the statute of limitations has expired.

Handley and his father, John, are grateful to the judge for looking into the case, “Without that attention to detail…being so compassionate and having a conscience, this probably would have never happened,” John Handley said, “He took a stand on it. He didn’t have to.”


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