Philadelphia Inquirer

Arson expert disputes findings in fatal 1985 Philadelphia fire
March 09, 2012|By Emilie Lounsberry, Inquirer Staff Writer

In the 12 years he has been on Pennsylvania's death row, Daniel Dougherty has maintained that he did not set the fire that killed his two young sons in their Northeast Philadelphia home on Aug. 24, 1985.

His fight to prove his innocence is now in a Common Pleas courtroom. His lawyers are trying to show that the lethal blaze was not arson but a tragic accident - and that Dougherty should be given a new trial.

At a hearing Thursday, nationally known fire expert John J. Lentini disputed the conclusion of an assistant fire marshal who, in pivotal testimony at Dougherty's trial in 2000, said the fire had three points of origin, a classic indicator of arson: in the sofa, in a love seat, and beneath the dining-room table of the home on Carver Street.

"Is there any scientific basis for the conclusion that this fire was arson?" defense lawyer David Fryman asked.

"There is not," Lentini replied.

A wealth of scientific studies has debunked what were once considered ironclad indicators of arson. As a result, convictions based on those methods are being appealed nationwide. Dougherty's is among a handful of arson-murder convictions being challenged in Pennsylvania.

At the time of the fire, Dougherty was a 26-year-old mechanic with a drinking problem. He told police he had fallen asleep on the sofa after coming home from a neighborhood bar, and that when he woke up, he saw the curtains on fire.

Although he ran outside, he said, he tried twice to get upstairs to his 3- and 4-year-old sons, but the fire was too hot.

Dougherty was not arrested until 1999, after his second ex-wife, with whom he was embroiled in a custody dispute, told police he had confessed to setting the fire. At his trial, he denied that.

On Thursday, Lentini told Common Pleas Court Judge Steven R. Geroff that John Quinn, who has since retired from the Fire Marshal's Office, classified the fire as arson based on a mistaken view that separate burn patterns were found.

"Every photo I have seen shows they are not distinct, they are connected," Lentini said.

He said the fire could have been caused by a cigarette or by a malfunction in the stereo, which investigators did not examine. There were no traces of accelerant.

Under cross-examination by Assistant District Attorney John Doyle, Lentini said he could not rule out arson or accidental fire.

Even so, he insisted that the judge and jury in Dougherty's trial had been misled by Quinn's conclusions. "He collected data but he analyzed it incorrectly," he said.

Advancements in the understanding of how fires burn have demonstrated that what were once considered signs of arson can also be signs of an accident. "There have been so many errors" in numerous cases, Lentini said.

In an interview after the hearing, Doyle said he believed Quinn accurately labeled the fire an arson.

The daylong session drew relatives on both sides of the case as Dougherty, now 52, burly and with a full beard and long hair in a ponytail, sat quietly at the defense table.

The victims' mother, Kathleen, occasionally dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as photos of the fire scene were displayed. She declined to comment, but her mother, Kathryn Dahill, said it had been a difficult day.

"It's just hard on all of us, and it never ends," Dahill said.

Dougherty's two older sons, who have different mothers, said they believed their father was innocent and should be set free.

Last month, Dougherty scored a victory when city prosecutors conceded his death sentence should be thrown out in favor of life behind bars - an order Geroff signed.

Assistant District Attorney Barbara Paul said the prosecution agreed to a life sentence because there was enough question about the effectiveness of Dougherty's trial lawyer.

Contact Emilie Lounsberry at

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