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Pardon in Virginia Arson Case Sparks Controversy Over Evidence
Many Arson Cases Could Get Overturned
A pardon granted by Virginia’s governor recently is turning up failings with the forensic evidence used to convict arsonists that could be rehashed in the courts for years.
Governor Terry McAuliffe granted Davey Reedy a pardon six years after his release from prison for being convicted of burning down his Roanoke home in a fire that killed his two young children.
The governor said the jury relied on flawed forensic evidence. Later evidence showed that chemicals found on Reedy’s shirt could have been residue from burned wood or plastic.
Prosecutors argued the chemical residue found on Reedy’s shirt and home floor indicated gasoline, proving he set the early-morning fire that trapped his children.
Post-conviction disputes about the evidence prompted the Roanoke Times to publish an article in 1999 that pointed out problems with the investigation. The story caught the attention of former public defender Roberta Bondurant, who spearheaded 10 years of appeals for Reedy.
The case inspired widespread controversy that has mushroomed into at least 56 arson convictions nationwide that are being reviewed because of suspicions about the quality of the evidence.
Bondurant’s appeals included having the original arson report from Virginia’s Division of Forensic Science reviewed by experts from the firm of Combustion Science & Engineering. They agreed the report was inaccurate.
Both plastics and wood contain petroleum, which could be confused for gasoline, the experts said. In addition, investigators relied on outdated and discredited information about how fires destroy home construction material in concluding it was arson.
The more likely conclusion is that the Reedy fire was an accident, the new experts said.
Many of the misconceptions resulted from a 1980 Fire Investigation Handbook published by the National Bureau of Standards that included inaccurate information about fire burn patterns.
A 1992 manual produced by the National Fire Protection Association corrected the mistakes, but not before the National Bureau of Standards’ handbook had been used as evidence in numerous arson cases.