ABC News Investigates Disputed Texas Arson Case

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The ABC News program 20/20 will broadcast a report this Friday night about people wrongly convicted of arson.

The segment—which airs at 9 p.m. central time—will feature the case of Curtis Severns, who was convicted in 2006 of starting a fire in his Plano gun shop. He remains in federal prison in Beaumont for a crime he likely didn’t commit.

The Observer first reported Severns’ case last year as part of our series on false arson convictions. As in other cases, Severns was convicted by what some of the top fire experts in the country now say is flawed forensic evidence.

Leading into Friday’s broadcast, the ABC News site is featuring several online stories about discredited arson evidence this week. You can read those pieces here and here.

Federal prosecutors and investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms contended that Severns must have set the fire in his gun shop because they found what’s called multiple points of origin at the scene. This typically indicates the work of an arsonist because accidental fires almost never start in more than one place.

But two of the most respected fire scientists in the country—Gerald Hurst of Austin and Florida-based John Lentini—believe the fire was accidental. They say a frayed electrical cord found at the scene ignited a small fire on a workbench that caused a nearby case of aerosol cans to explode and spread flames all over the shop. In essence, they say, an aerosol can explosion caused the appearance of multiple points of origin. And a recently discovered video of a test fire—run by the ATF itself—shows that aerosol cans can spread fire and make an accidental fire appear like an arson. “Spray cans can create the illusion of multiple origins,” Hurst told the Observer last year.

Even the prosecution’s star witness—when questioned by the Observer about the new evidence—conceded that the aerosol-can scenario was possible.

Here’s the opening to our investigative report from April 2009:

It was just past 1 a.m. on a Saturday night when the phone woke Curtis Severns. The security company was calling to say his gun shop was on fire. He roused himself, left his wife, Sue, and their newborn, and began the hour-long drive from the North Texas town of Sherman to his store in Plano. That was Aug. 21, 2004. His life hasn’t been the same since.

For nearly three years, Severns has been in federal prison. Convicted of intentionally starting the fire in his gun shop, he has 25 more years on his sentence. Severns has maintained his innocence all along. As in many arson cases, he was convicted almost exclusively by the testimony of fire investigators who relied on assumptions that some of the leading arson experts in the country now say are false. In fact, new evidence and an Observer investigation reveal that Severns remains in federal prison in Beaumont for a crime he likely didn’t commit…..

There wasn’t much to go on. No witnesses saw him set the fire. There were no traces of gasoline or other accelerants used to start the blaze. And there was little motive for Severns to burn down his own business and its inventory. Prosecutors would later claim he did it for the insurance money. That seems odd. Severns’ family wasn’t struggling financially; his wife earned a six-figure salary. Moreover, five months before the fire, Severns had reduced his insurance policy limit to far less than the shop was worth. If he’d done it for the insurance, he would have lost money on the deal.

Two of the leading arson experts in the country believe the fire at Lone Star Guns was accidental. They say it had a single point of origin, sparked by a frayed electric cord found at the scene, and was spread by a case of aerosol cans sitting nearby. The cans were filled with highly flammable gun cleaner. When aerosol cans explode, they can act like blowtorches, spewing flaming liquid all over. These experts say the ATF agents, using sloppy methods, mistook an aerosol-can explosion for a three-point-of-origin fire…..

But new video evidence has surfaced that contradicts the key testimony that convicted Severns and shows the fire was likely accidental. In 2007, someone inside the ATF leaked one of the agency’s training videos to Lentini. In the video, shot in 1994, ATF agents intentionally ignite aerosol cans to see how they’ll react in a fire. When the cans explode, they can clearly be seen bouncing around the room, tossing flaming liquid and starting fires several feet away—just as Hurst and Lentini contend.

The fire expert who provided key testimony for the prosecution, John DeHaan, recently admitted, in an interview with the Observer, that it’s “theoretically possible” that the fire was accidental…..

Perhaps no one was more surprised by the verdict than Severns. He had turned down a five-year plea offer before the trial. When his lawyer explained that the plea could have him home in three years rather than 30, Severns said he wouldn’t plead guilty to something he didn’t do.

When the judge read the guilty verdict, Severns collapsed. He fell to the floor behind the defense table and began to sob. His lawyer had never seen anything like it. “I didn’t do this,” Severns said. After his lawyer coaxed him to his feet, Severns yelled at the prosecutors, “How could you do this?” A short time later, U.S. marshals handcuffed him and led him away to nearly three decades in federal prison.

Severns’ original 30-year sentence has since been reduced. A federal appeals court last year determined the sentence was egregious. But even so, Severns has been in prison for nearly four years now and still has more than a decade left to serve—10 years away from his wife and children, sitting in a cell for a crime he almost assuredly didn’t commit.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.