Chicago Tribune


Judge rejects defense, prosecution calls for retrial in '93 fatal arson


Nov. 7, 2016
by Steve Schmadeke

Adam Gray
Adam Gray in Gatesville prison

In a surprise move, a Cook County judge on Monday denied a new trial for a man convicted of setting a fire that killed two people, even though prosecutors had concluded that his conviction was based on inaccurate scientific testimony.

The change of heart by prosecutors last summer came after two of the nation's leading fire scientists found that Chicago police and fire investigators relied on flawed theories to find the 1993 fire was intentionally set.

But in brief remarks Monday in court, Judge Angela Petrone remained unconvinced that lawyers for Adam Gray had produced enough evidence for a jury to acquit him at a new trial.

In her lengthier written ruling, she cited Gray's confession at age 14 and testimony by two alleged eyewitnesses at trial as proof of his guilt. But Gray later denied the admissions, saying he confessed only due to pressure from the officers questioning him, and both eyewitnesses signed affidavits after the trial saying detectives pressured them to identify Gray.

Petrone was dismissive of the fire experts' opinions, saying their testimony merely "discredited" the original investigators and was not "new" because it was based on investigative theories published before Gray was convicted at trial in 1996 and sentenced to life in prison.

The judge, though, agreed to resentence Gray — but only because a U.S. Supreme Court ruling found mandatory life terms for juveniles to be unconstitutional.

Gray flashed a disappointed grin to his brother as he left the courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.

"Wow," said his brother, Michael Gray, shaking his head after the ruling. "This is a very challenged county."

Gray's attorneys said they were looking at their options, including an appeal of the judge's ruling.

"This is an unusual case in which both the defense lawyers and the prosecutors agreed he was convicted on the basis of evidence which experts now know is unscientific and unreliable," said Terri Mascherin, one of Gray's attorneys. "We think the judge misapplied the law."

Although the new standards for fire investigations date to the early 1990s, they were slow to take hold in many jurisdictions. Investigators clung to methods they were taught by more veteran colleagues or learned from their own experience, even though such practices had no scientific foundation.

Those new investigative rules are widely accepted today by fire sleuths, leading prosecutors and defense attorneys nationwide to re-evaluate old arson convictions. Many have been set aside.

Perhaps the best known re-examination involved the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for setting a fire that killed his three young daughters. A Tribune investigation of the case that year showed that Willingham's conviction was based on faulty science.

The fire occurred in March 1993 in Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood when Gray was allegedly angry with a girl, who lived in a two-flat in the 4100 block of South Albany Avenue, because she had rejected him. Police and prosecutors said the eighth-grader ignited an accelerant he poured on the enclosed back porch of the second floor and the stairs. While the girl and her parents escaped, the second-floor tenants, Peter McGuiness, 54, and his sister, Margaret Mesa, 74, died.

At trial, prosecutors focused on two elements — the evidence that the fire had been intentionally set and the confession from Gray that he bought gasoline to set the fire.

Two fire investigators said they found alligator charring and deep burn patterns at the scene and concluded they were evidence of a hot fire set with an accelerant. A milk jug found in the alley behind the home contained what police believed was an accelerant, and a gas station clerk said Gray bought gas shortly before the fire.

Gray later contended that police pressured him into confessing and that he had been sleeping at a friend's home when the fire was set.

One of the nation's leading fire scientists, Gerald Hurst, concluded the initial investigation had been undermined by determinations that the alligator charring and burn patterns were signs of arson, saying instead that they were not indicators of arson.

Hurst, who has since died, also said that the fire investigators at the time had failed to do a thorough enough investigation to rule out accidental causes.

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com



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