News 02.28.14

Pennsylvania Arson Case Draws Comparison to Willingham

It has been nearly three decades since a fire destroyed a family home in Philadelphia and claimed the lives of two young boys, and 14 years since the children’s father, Daniel Dougherty, was convicted of the crime. He was sentenced to death row three year later.

 

Dougherty has always maintained his innocence and says he is a victim of flawed arson science. Since the fire destroyed his life in 1985, the science behind forensic fire investigations has advanced, and experts are now saying that what was admissible as evidence of arson may not be proof of anything.

 

The

Philadelphia Inquirer

reported that the Superior Court has ordered a new trial for Dougherty based on his defense lawyer’s failure to challenge the state’s scientific conclusions. The court wrote that “no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence took place” and that if the jury heard 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.”

 

In response to the court’s order, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office, which opposes a retrial, has asked for reconsideration by the full Superior Court, beyond the three-judge panel that unanimously ordered the new trial.

 

Before the fire, Dougherty was living in the home with his sons, his girlfriend Kathleen Schuler and her son. Right after the fire, he cooperated with law enforcement and waived his right to remain silent. There wasn’t any reliable evidence against Dougherty, so he was released from police custody.

 

More than a decade later, police received a call from Dougherty’s estranged second wife, whom he had been battling over custody of their child. She claimed Dougherty confessed to her six times. He was arrested in 1999.

 

At trial, prosecutors said a vengeful Dougherty set the fire to hurt Schuler and the mother of his children Kathleen Dippel, from whom he was separated. The second wife didn’t testify at trial, but two jailhouse informants took the stand and claimed Dougherty confessed to them while in custody. At trial, Assistant City Fire Marshal John Quinn testified that the fire started in three places and that Dougherty’s descriptions of his efforts to save the children were not believable, because his body showed no exposure to flames or smoke.

 

In Dougherty’s initial appeal, nationally known arson expert John Lentini, who has also testified in the

Cameron Todd Willingham

case, said the cause of the fire should have been listed as undetermined.

 

Now, 14 years later, the Superior Court reversed Dougherty’s conviction because Quinn’s conclusions were not science based.

 

Dougherty’s death sentence was vacated in 2012, and he is currently serving a life sentence at the Greene prison in southwestern Pennsylvania.

 

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