by Dr. Gerald Hurst
Letitia Smallwood was a 20 year-old college student in 1972. She
had been dating a childhood friend, Richard, who was living with Paula
in an apartment building across the street from the hotel where Letitia
was temporarily residing. The parents of Letitia and Richard had
a longstanding feud arising from an unforgotten incident involving only
When a fire broke out in the apartment building, Paula was killed in a leap from the third story and Richard was injured slightly. Following some finger pointing by Richard's parent and a fire investigation by the local authorities, Letitia became an arson suspect. She was subsequently indicted and convicted of murder and has spent the last 27 years in prison in Muncy PA.
The case was appealed, eventually winding up in the PA Supreme Court where the conviction was upheld with one strongly dissenting opinion. The series of appeals addressed only the circumstantial evidence in the case, considering such issues as alleged vague conversations held by the defendant and her alleged whereabouts at certain times prior to the fire. For reasons that are not clear, the defense apparently never thought about the possibility that the original arson investigation might have been flawed.
In the trial, Letitia was not provided with a defense expert. The prosecution expert testified that he was certain that the fire was incendiary because there were clearly two areas of origin, one on the second floor stairwell landing and one in the third-floor hallway. In each case, a resident had opened his hallway door and observed intense fires involving abandoned furniture. These two supposedly isolated and therefore independent fires, the state's expert said, could only have originated in the same time frame if they were both deliberately set by an arsonist.
Even a cursory review of the eyewitness testimony clearly shows that the times at which the flames on the second and third floors were observed cannot be established with any accuracy. Either observation might easily have been made at any time within a span of half an hour. The prosecutor made it sound to the jury as if both observations occurred at about 20 minute before 3 am. He did this by taking the testimony of the second-floor witness that he saw the fire at either 2:20 or 3:20 am and coaxing the man to agree that "it could have been "20 before 3:00." Thereafter the 2:40 time became fixed in stone for the prosecution. The third-floor witness testified that he went out at about 2:00 and returned "about" 20 minutes later, then spent "about" five or ten minutes in his apartment before detecting the fire. The DA concluded that the witness had seen the fire at 2:35, that is, within five minutes or so of the second-floor observation.
For the DA and the state's investigator, shrinking the time between observations on the second and third floors to "mere" minutes was conclusive evidence of simultaneous origins. Like many fire investigators even today, these two gentlemen grossly underestimated the speed with which an unaccelerated fire can propagate.
Two hallways connected by a stairway may appear as separate areas to
the human senses, but fire sees this combination essentially as a single
compartment. Heat from a lower hall will pour across the first ceiling
and rise up the empty tower of a stairwell to spread across the upper ceiling
much as water spreads across a floor. As the fire proceeds, the hot
In the case of this particular fire, the stairwell is almost incidental in explaining fire on two levels. By the time the witness on the second floor observed the flames from the discarded furniture, the column of fire had already breached the ceiling and was pouring directly into the third floor level. Whether via the stairwell or through the ceiling, five minutes would have been more than adequate to raise the temperature of the upper hallway to flashover. Under these conditions, abandoned furniture on the third floor would have simply played the role of an eye-catching fuel load, blazing high flames in an area otherwise fuel poor.
It has been shown that a single burning armchair can bring a room to flashover in under five minutes. The subject fire may, for all anybody knows, have been alive for half an hour before either witness spotted it. The lower fuel load in this case was not one chair but two, plus a couch, a television and a pile of old rags, all in the same area. This junk pile was in the perfect area to receive a discarded match from anyone going to any apartment on either floor. Whether this was the cause of the fire will obviously never be known.
The DA solidified his two-separate-fires case by characterizing the witnesses' testimony as indicating that the fires were localized. This is, however, not what they said. The second-floor witness said he saw no flames going up the stairwell. There is no surprise there. By the time he saw the fire, the flames had already chewed a more convenient path straight through the ceiling and had essentially burned up all the furniture. The third-floor witness was more direct. He readily explained that upon seeing the impressive flames in the junk directly across from his door, he retreated rather than looking around the corner at the empty stretch of hallway.
If Letitia had had a fire expert on her defense team, that person could have explained fire behavior to the jury and her trial might have had a different outcome. Letitia was convicted by very weak circumstantial evidence backed by the unmitigated belief that the fire was a slam-dunk case of arson. The unrebutted speculation of the state's expert was accepted by both sides during the trial and throughout the appeal process.
Twenty-seven years have passed, but there is still a chance to rescue
part of Letitia's life. What is needed is an aggressive Pennsylvania
attorney with a flair for writs, who can turn the technical case into habeas
corpus language. As is usual in such cases, the remuneration is zero
and there are no perks. The lawyer who takes this case has nothing
to lose but time
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