News 11.17.10

Massachusetts Man Granted New Trial in Arson Conviction

Almost a decade after being convicted of burning down his own convenience store, a Massachusetts man was granted a new trial yesterday.

The presiding judge ruled that prosecutors presented flawed scientific evidence during the 2006 trial that persuaded jurors to believe the cause of the fire was arson, reported The Boston Globe.

James Hebshie was sentenced to a mandatory 15-year prison sentence for the fire and has always maintained his innocence. Hebshie’s defense was that the fire accidentally started in the basement, but the prosecution argued that he started the fire in order to collect a $30,000 insurance policy.

In her order granting the  new trial, US District Judge Nancy Gertner said Hebshie’s lawyers failed to give him a constitutionally acceptable defense. They never challenged the flawed evidence at the original trial and ignored warnings about expert arson testimony, lab analysis and canine evidence.

[Gertner] added that much of the evidence should have been excluded and that, if it had, jurors may have acquitted Hebshie.

“This court recognizes the importance of finality in criminal cases, particularly after time and resources have gone into the trial and after a jury has pronounced guilt,’’ she wrote. “But finality cannot trump fairness or justice.’’

The fire broke out in a two-story commercial building in Taunton, Massachusetts on the afternoon of April 21, 2001. Four businesses, including Hebshie’s store were housed in the building. Hebshie quickly became a suspect when it was realized that he left the property seven minutes earlier.  Gertner said an investigator from the State Fire Marshal’s office testified that he excluded the basement as the origin of the fire after examining the room despite  his report lacking photos of the room and any mention that he stepped foot in that area.

Leading arson expert John Lentini, who assembled a peer review panel to review evidence in Cameron Todd Willingham’s case, reviewed Hebshie’s case earlier this year and concluded that investigators misinterpreted evidence that showed the fire likely started in the basement.

Read the full article

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Read more about

the Cameron Todd Willingham case in Texas

and questions about arson evidence nationwide.

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