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Attorney for man freed after nearly 36 years in prison thankful 'criminal justice system worked'

January 24, 2015

James Hugney
James Hugney, free at last

A day after an East Shore man was freed from prison after serving nearly 36 years for a fatal fire in Susquehanna Township, the attorneys who helped secure James Hugney's release heralded it as a triumph for justice. 

"This is a great day for James Hugney, a great day for justice, and a great day for science," said Justin McShane, of The McShane Firm, in a news release. "While no one can give him back the nearly 36 years of his life that he lost, at least Mr. Hugney has his freedom now."

The science used to convict and sentence Hugney to life in prison for the 1978 fire that killed his 16-year-old son was "based on popularly held beliefs and myths of the time that modern science has totally refuted," McShane, a lawyer and scientist, said in the release.

McShane filed a motion to set aside the decades-old conviction after three international fire scientists could not conclude the fire as an arson using modern fire science.

County President Judge Richard A. Lewis then granted Hugney a new trial in which Hugney immediately pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and arson charges. Hugney was then sentenced to 15 to 30 years in state prison on the new pleas, but was ordered released on time served on Friday.

Hugney entered his guilty pleas willingly, but he did not admit to committing any crime, Lewis noted in his order on the case.

At the time of Hugney's first trial, prosecutors called on experts who testified the fire was an arson based on pour patterns around the bed of James Hugney Jr., according to the release. Prosecutors at the time asserted an angry Hugney set fire to the house by pouring gasoline around his son's bed.

After more than three decades behind bars, McShane said Hugney faces an immense learning curve, but he is in "upbeat spirits" and up to the task. He added that the 72-year-old has strong support from family.

"There's a tremendous amount of learning that he has to do and culture shock," McShane said in a phone interview Saturday. "He needs some time to decompress."

Calling Hugney's release a team effort, McShane lauded District Attorney Edward Marsico Jr. and First Assistant District Attorney Fran Chardo and said "without them the outcome would not have happened."

"If I had to sum it up in one word ... it'd be thankful," McShane said. "Thankful that the criminal justice system worked."


Exonerations
Arson

Truth in Justice