FIVE TEXAS ARSON CASES UNDER SCRUTINY
Sunday, September 13, 2009
by Christy Hoppe
Circumstances: On the day preceding a house fire on June 11, 1986, in Iraan, Willis and others in the house had been drinking heavily. Police arrested the two tenants on charges of unruly behavior about 10:30 p.m. Four visitors stayed behind, including Willis, who reported waking up because of smoke around 4:30 a.m. He tried to alert the others, and managed to escape and phone the fire department. Willis and his cousin Billy Don escaped, but two women died.
Evidence: Billy Don passed a polygraph, but Ernest led police to believe he started the fire. Investigators cited numerous origin points for the fire and concluded, because of the heat and burn marks, that flammable material was used.
Problems: Lack of documentation, failure of forensics to find accelerants. The burn marks, "pour patterns," and rapid spread that were attributed to arson are now widely understood to occur in accidental fires.
Outcome: Courts reversed the conviction because Willis was too heavily drugged during his trial to offer defense counsel help. A new district attorney determined arson was unlikely and dropped the charges. Willis was released from death row in 2004.
Circumstances: The Hewitt resident was convicted of setting fire to a backyard shed where his two stepsons – Joby, 8, and Jason, 9 – were playing in 1986. Investigators testified that it appeared gasoline had been poured on the shed floor. Graf was sentenced to life in prison.
Evidence: Two months before the blaze, Graf had taken out $50,000 insurance policies on each boy. He'd insisted on leaving price tags on their back-to-school purchases, which he returned for a refund after the fire. At the time of the fire, he told his wife both boys were dead even though the fire department had only found one body.
Problems: The entire crime scene was bulldozed. Neighbors substantiated that the boys had frequently been in trouble for playing with fire. Highly flammable furniture was stored in the shed. The burn patterns identified by investigators as proof of a gasoline pattern are no longer considered credible evidence of arson.
Outcome: Graf remains in prison with his appeals all but exhausted.
Circumstances: On Feb. 25, 1998, Martin's wife, Marcia Pool; their daughter, Kristen, 1; and her son, Michael, 3, were killed in a house fire. Martin had been abusive to Pool, and she told her mother he had threatened to kill her that day. Martin left with a friend, and when they returned 30 minutes later, found the house ablaze. He was restrained by police.
Evidence: Paramedics testified that they smelled charcoal lighter fluid on Martin when they took him to a hospital. Doctors reported evidence of blunt trauma to Pool and her son, probably before the fire was set. Investigators detected a pour pattern of flammable liquids on the floor and trace amounts of what was probably lamp oil found near a bedroom wall, where they said the fire started.
Problems: Other witnesses reported no unusual smells. The injuries to Pool and her son are common results of carbon monoxide poisoning. The "pour patterns" can occur in accidental patterns. The trace amounts of liquid also could have come from numerous household products. Other experts suspected the fire started on a back porch, where an extension cord connected to a refrigerator.
Outcome: Martin is serving a life term on three counts of capital murder.
Circumstances: Early on Aug. 1, 2004, Severns was called by a security company and told his Plano gun shop was on fire. He arrived to find the shop gutted. Federal agents began an investigation of arson, based on burn patterns.
Evidence: The fire was started in three places. It set off an alarm only 23 minutes after Severns left the shop, which had been struggling financially. Leading experts on fire behavior squared off, but the jury believed those who saw it as arson.
Problems: Several experts believe the fire began from a frayed cord from a fan. The multiple origins could have occurred from aerosol cans that bounced around and spewed from the heat of the fire. Also, ceiling tiles might have ignited and fallen in those spots. Severns had recently reduced insurance coverage on the shop. He and his wife earned good money and had healthy savings.
Outcome: He is serving a 25-year sentence in federal prison.