(Current as of 23 Aug 2012)
3. SEQUENCE OF EVENTS: AN OVERVIEW
In Apartment 17-A, Michael and Elise Ledford were having trouble with the table lamp plugged into the outlet behind their couch. The lamp would not turn on reliably by use of its own switch. In this sense, the lamp was much like the other electrical items that seemingly malfunctioned in other apartments suffering from overheating outlets.
Michael and Elise therefore came to rely on the wall switch to control the lamp, That wall switch was located right by the front door. That wall switch controlled the outlet that later showed evidence of burning, the outlet in which the insurance investigator found (but did not photograph or preserve) burned wiring.
It was odd that the lamp switch seemed not to work. The lamp had been given to Michael and Elise by Elise's parents just two months earlier. Her parents had owned and used the lamp for many years. The parents had never had a problem with the lamp. Not until the lamp was plugged into the outlet in the Ledford apartment did it seemingly begin to fail.
We learn of that from the trial testimony of Elise's father, who appeared as a witness for the Commonwealth.
Ervin: Let me show you photograph number 1, Reverend Arner.
Arner: Yes, sir.
Ervin: And there's a lamp here on a table near the door. Where did -- did that lamp come from?
Arner: That was a lamp that we gave them about July of '99.
Ervin: And what was the working condition of that lamp?
Arner: It was excellent.
Ervin: Had there ever been any malfunctions?
Arner: Not -- none. No.
Ervin: Any sparks or anything caused by the lamp?
Arner: Never -- never blew a light bulb. We had used it all the time that we had it; which it was brand new until then.
Darlene Keiper also knew about the recent problem with the lamp. She shared the apartment with Michael and Elise. She was the person who actually moved the couch from the wall, plugged the lamp into the outlet, and moved the couch back against the wall. Only then, when the previously trouble-free lamp was plugged into the outlet at Highland Hills Apartments, did the lamp begin to misbehave.
Martha and Ronda Reames both knew about the problem with the lamp. On the very day of the fire, while attending a birthday party for one-year-old Zachary Ledford, they each noticed that the lamp did not turn on and off properly.
Nobody, however, noticed that the outlet was overheating. The outlet was located behind the couch: out of site, out of touch, and out of mind.
Later that night, when Zachary and Elise were both early to bed, Michael left to run errands. He planned to put gas in the car. He planned to stop by the firehouse where he volunteered as a firefighter. As he left his apartment, he decided to leave a light on for Darlene Keiper. She was scheduled to arrive home soon after he left. He flipped the wall switch to the ON position as he left the apartment.
It was a simple courtesy. It was a completely innocent act. It had deadly consequence.
Within minutes, Zachary Ledford would die of smoke inhalation. Elise Ledford would be seriously burned during her unsuccessful effort to escape.
The Commonwealth's fire investigator would make only a cursory examination of the fire scene. In his formal report, he would declare that the electrical system could not be ruled out as a cause of the fire.
In that same report, the Commonwealth's investigator would declare that he could not exclude an accidental or natural cause of the fire. He would declare the cause to be "Undetermined."
Instead of making a thorough and scientific investigation of the fire, the state investigator would relinquish the investigation to agents of the complex's insurance carrier, one of them an investigator and one of them an adjuster.
The insurance investigator discovered, but literally covered up, evidence of an electrical fire. The outlet behind the living sofa showed distinctive smoke patterns emanating from within. When the insurance investigator removed the outlet, he discovered burned wiring inside. The insurance investigator did not photograph the burned wiring, nor did he secure them as evidence. Instead, he replace the outlet and its faceplate as if he had found nothing of interest.
Within weeks, the insurance investigator and/or the insurance adjuster would convince the police that the fire was caused by arson rather than by an electrical problem. Their ultimate client, [Name of Insurance Company Withheld], would be spared a lawsuit for the wrongful death of a one-year-old child, a personal injury lawsuit for the burning of a young mother, and the cost of major electrical repairs to every apartment in the Highland Hills Apartments complex.
Within a month, when subjected to techniques later proven to produce false confessions, Michael Ledford would come to believe that he must have started the fire. He would claim he started the fire by removing one of two candles from one of two candleholders, and by then tossing the candle into the seat of the living room chair. Believing he must be mentally ill for being unable to previously recall the act, he would ask for psychiatric treatment. Believing he must unwittingly be a threat to others, he would ask also to be kept away from other people.
Michael Ledford's confession, however, would be utterly contradicted and absolutely falsified by the evidence from the fire scene. The fire did not start in the chair as Michael claimed in his confession. Nor was any residual candle wax found, though the wax could not have been entirely consumed by the fire. Nor were any candleholders found, though the candleholders certainly could not have been consumed by the fire.
Not only did Michael's confession include candles and candleholders that never were, his confession included precise details of a specific cigarette lighter never found, "a white one with the Dallas Cowboys." Michael confessed that he lit the candles with that specific lighter, the "white one with the Dallas Cowboys", and left the lighter "on the table that had the plants on it." The lighter could not have been consumed by the fire, since even the plants on the table were not consumed, but the lighter was never found
The lighter could not be found for the same reason candle wax and candleholders could not be found. No such items were ever involved in the Ledford fire. Michael's clear recollection of those items was but a confabulation, a false memory resulting from the persistent suggestions of his interrogators.
In addition to taking note of the many false claims central to Michael's confession, the investigators should have also taken note of a burned circuit breaker, and of smoke patterns emanating from the circuit breaker panel. The investigators should have taken note also of the burned wiring inside the living room electrical outlet, and of the smoke discharged from within that outlet.
The investigators should have carefully created a timeline of the events leading up to the fire. Had they done so, they would have realized that ignition occurred well after Michael Ledford left the apartment.
Had the state investigator conducted a thorough and scientific investigation of the Ledford fire, rather than relinquishing the investigation to agents of the insurance company, Michael Ledford would never have been charged. We would not be addressing this issue still today.
Because the state investigator relinquished the investigation to agents of an insurance company having a vested interest in the outcome of the investigation, Michael Ledford would stand trail for capital murder.
During the trial, the jury would hear only a select portion of Michael's confession. The jury would not hear the hours Michael spent denying he started the fire. The jury would not hear his interrogators try to convince him the fire started on the floor, as they knew it had, rather than in the chair, as they knew it had not. The jury would not hear his interrogators suggest dozens of bizarre motives, including sexual failure and a desire to be a fire chief. The jury would not see those portions of the tape where his interrogators told him he had failed a polygraph test when he had not. The jurors would not see those portions of the tape where his interrogators lied to him about the physical evidence.
Instead, the jury would hear only the moment Michael Ledford suddenly and quietly succumbed to the will of his interrogators.
The jury would certainly not hear of experiments yet to take place that would prove the interrogation techniques applied to Michael Ledford frequently lead to false confessions.
Equally troubling, the jury would not see the compelling evidence of an electrical fire. That evidence had been concealed by the insurance investigator, depriving both the Commonwealth and Michael Ledford critical evidence of his innocence.
The jury would find Michael Ledford guilty of arson and first-degree murder. They would spare his life. The judge would sentence him to fifty years in prison.
For the next decade, Michael's mother would attempt to free her son. In 2010, she would join forces with an advocate for the wrongfully convicted. After a two-year investigation, this petition now explains how the Virginia justice system was deceived by an insurance company into pursuing and securing the conviction of Michael Ledford.