Sunday, August 5, 2012

Arson Science Questioned in Two Convictions

The title to this post is less flamboyant than usual. That's because it's not mine. It belongs to the The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the newspaper of record for Richmond and much of Virginia. Written by Frank Green, the article discusses wrongful arson convictions in general and two possible cases in particular: those of Davey James Reedy and Michael Ledford. Since I represent Michael Ledford as an advocate for the wrongfully convicted, I may have brought his case to the attention of Reporter Green.

Please read the article in its totality. I offer only a few brief and non-sequential excerpts below.
Two men who claim they are innocent of arsons that killed their children are hoping scientific advancements in fire investigation in recent decades will clear their names. ... Prosecutors remain convinced the two are guilty as found by juries beyond reasonable doubt. ... 
"When you can prove some other dude done it you're in much better shape. With fires, it's not 'some other dude done it,' it's 'nobody done it,' and that's very difficult to prove once you're convicted," said John J. Lentini, a fire investigation expert and consultant. ..
Ledford, 36, is in his 12th year behind bars for the Oct. 10, 1999, fire that started a few hours after the family celebrated his son's first birthday. The fire was contained to an area surrounding an upholstered chair in the living room of their two-bedroom apartment in Augusta County. It broke out after Ledford left the apartment to run errands and to stop by the fire station where he was a volunteer firefighter. His son, Zachary, was killed by smoke inhalation and his wife, Elise, was severely burned but lived. ... 
In the Roanoke arson case, shortly after 6 a.m. on Aug. 10, 1987, a fire broke out in the kitchen of Reedy's home occupied by Reedy, who was asleep on a couch, and his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Reedy said he discovered the fire and attempted to save his children, but was overcome by heat and smoke and jumped through a window to escape. He was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, burns and lacerations. His children died from smoke inhalation.
For the remainder of this post, the information regarding Davey Reedy comes from the article. The information regarding Michael Ledford comes my two-year involvement and knowledge of the case, a portion of which was reflected in the article.

Reedy was convicted because of well-intended arson investigators who applied now-discredited rules of thumb, and because of sloppy lab work that somehow detected gasoline residue where none may have existed. Reedy was sentenced to two life terms. Ledford was convicted because of a lackadaisical investigation by the Commonwealth investigator who effectively relinquished the investigation to a less-than-impartial insurance company. Though the Commonwealth sought his death, Ledford was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Reedy was paroled in 2009 after serving more than 20 years. "The Virginia Parole Board, (which) paroles nobody, let him out," said Reedy's attorney.

That claim seems to be accurate, at least according to an article by The title alone tells much of the story. "At 6%, Virginia's parole rate is among the nation's lowest: Virginia Parole Board denies 94% of requests."

The possibility of parole is even more bleak for Michael Ledford. In fact, it is non-existent. In 1994, parole was abolished by the Virginia Legislature. The abolition was not retroactive so Reedy (convicted in 1987) was eligible and Ledford (convicted in 1999) is not.

Though paroled, Reedy is seeking a pardon from Governor Robert McDonnell to clear his name and restore his rights. More than a decade ago, then state delegate McDonnell expressed concern about Reedy's conviction. From the Times-Dispatch article:
In 1999, while a state delegate representing Virginia Beach, McDonnell wrote then-Gov. Jim Gilmore about Reedy's case telling him there was "a substantial amount of evidence to warrant further investigation."
Those of us who advocate for Michael Ledford's release are encouraged by Governor McDonnell's concern that justice be pursued even post-conviction. We have prepared what we believe to be a comprehensive and compelling petition for absolute pardon, and we will be submitting it soon to the governor. I have posted the executive summary of that petition here. The entire petition is 160 pages, or thereabouts. I will be posting it on a chapter-by-chapter basis over the course of the next month or so.

I invite you to follow the story as I post the chapters so that you can better understand how an innocent person can be prosecuted by the State and convicted by a jury of his peers.