Last week, 21-year-old Zachary Handley of Pennsylvania was given the keys to a new beginning when District Attorney John Morganelli announced that he would not re-try the young man for a 2007 fire that left four Stockertown families homeless. The young man served a year and a half in juvenile detention for the fire and owed restitution of $625,000 until a judge overturned the conviction, realizing that the fire had actually been set by Handley’s accuser, a local woman.
In 2007, Handley was a 14-year-old eighth grader when the Stockertown police called his home to tell his parents that they needed to bring him to the station; he’d been accused by a local woman, Karla Ann Dewey, of setting a fire that burned down three local row houses—including Dewey’s—three weeks prior. Dewey told police that she’d seen Handley standing on her porch with two other youths on the night of the fire. She had also accused him of participating in a fire that was set behind a local restaurant a number of weeks before the row house fire.
At the station, Handley was interrogated for 90 minutes. When his parents—at the advice of the detective working the case—instructed him to own up to what he’d done, he confessed, although he knew that he was innocent. It was the Christmas season, and Handley thought that if he told the police that he was guilty, he’d be able to go home and celebrate the holiday with his family. Soon after his confession, he recanted, but it was too late.
According to the
, Handley was convicted of the two fires. He was ordered to pay $625,000 in fire damages and was sent away to a juvenile lockup for 47 days, after which he was transferred to a boot camp for youth fire starters for a year. At the boot camp, he insisted that he was innocent but eventually realized that if he ever wanted to go home, he was going to have to falsely admit to being an arsonist. Once Handley finally returned to his family, he carried with him a criminal record—a label that weighed on him.
Handley did not see justice until nearly eight years later. The
writes that Judge Anthony Beltrami was assigned several arson cases of Karla Dewey, the woman who had accused Handley of setting her home ablaze. Dewey had pled guilty to a 2012 fire that burned down her rental home—endangering her 3-year-old child—as well as several attached homes, and to trying to set fire to her church. When reviewing her files, Beltrami realized that he had serious concerns about the testimony she’d given against Handley. Beltrami conducted a comprehensive review of Handley’s case and concluded that the youth had been falsely accused and coerced into confessing. He strongly believes that Dewey was the person responsible for starting the 2007 row house fire. She cannot be prosecuted for those fires because the statute of limitations has expired, but Beltrami says that she is a “serial arsonist,” writes the
. Today, she is serving up to 11 years in prison for arson and child endangerment.
According to the
, Handley and his father, John, are grateful for Judge Beltrami for looking into his case, even after so many years.
“Without that attention to detail and being so compassionate and having a conscience, this probably would have never happened,” John Handley said of Beltrami, according to the
. “He took a stand on it. He didn’t have to.”