Page 25


Pattern CURTIS SEVERNS The Fire: In his Plano gun shop on Aug. 21, 2004. The Evidence: Prosecutors claimed multipl points of origin at scene proves Severns committed arson. Accidental fires almost neve r start in multiple places. Forensic Flaws: Fire scientists say it was likely Curtis Severns started by an electrical short and spread by exploding aerosol cans full of flammable gun cleaner. New video evidence proves aerosol cans can spread fire and create the illusion of multiple points of origin. Motive: He drastically reduced his insurance policy months before the fire. He would have lost money if the store were destroyed. Sentenced to: 27 years in federal prison in June 2007. Postscript: Severns remains in federal prison in Beaumont. His sentence has been reduced; he has 15 more years to serve. After the Observer story, Walter Reaves, a Waco attorney who works with the Innocence Project of Texas, took on the case pro bono. ED GRAF The Fire: In a shed behind Graf’s house in suburban Waco on Aug. 26, 1986, that killed his two stepsons. The Evidence: Fire investigators contended that burn patterns at the scene and the position of door locks proved Graf had ignited gasoline and locked the door to the shed. Ed Graf The Forensic Flaws: Nearly every piece of forensic evidence that convicted Graf has since been disproved. Reading burn patterns in post-flashover fires is no longer seen as a reliable way to determine how a fire started. Subsequent investigation also showed that the door to shed was likely open. If the door had been closed, the fire would have burned out from lack of oxygen in a windowless shed. Defense attorneys theorized the kids, who had history of playing with fire, might have started the blaze and lost control. Sentenced to: Life in rison in Postscript: Little has changed in Graf’s case since the Observer’s original story. Graf remains in state priso ALFREDO GUARDIOLA The Fire: In a house in East Houston that killed two adults and two children on May 11, 1989. Evidence: Guardiola confessed to the crime after 13-hour interrogation. He quickly recanted and says the confession was coerced. Fire investigators also believed burn patterns at the scene proved an arsonist used gasoline to start the fire. Forensic Flaws: Eip erts see no evidence of arson. No gasoline was ever detected at the scene. Fire scientists say e burn patterns were likely caused by flashover, not gasoline. Testimony from numerous eyewitnesses points to an accidental fir Motive: Prosecutors contended Guardiola burned the house to prevent the family from implicating him in recent burglaries. But Guardiola wasn’t directly involved in the burglaries, and the famil didn’t even know who he was Sentenced to: 4o years in prison in 1993. Postscript: Guardiola has 20 years left on his sentence. After reading the Observer story, lawyers with the Innocence Project of Texas are looking into Guardiola’s case. e v yr ow andll.. happen to have gained wide public attention. Hurst has seen many cases in which the forensic evidence was as bad or worse. In the basement of his Austin home, he continues to dig through case files submitted by attorneys and families across Texas and the nation. In the last two weeks of October alone, he received requests to examine a half-dozen arson cases. Some of the defendants are obviously guilty, he says. Other cases have flaws that leave questions about the defendants’ guilt. But in about half the cases he sees, fire investigators have conjured arson evidence that is so obviously wrongbased on ludicrous theories and long-disproved methodologiesthat it would almost be funny, he says, if someone weren’t sitting in jail because of it. “Older cases, you can pretty much assume it’s probably a bad case,” Hurst says. “But new cases come in too, and only a small percentage of them are really good casesI mean where they’ve done their homework, eliminated accidental causes and pretty well established arson. But I don’t see many. I see [investigators] doing some of the same things they were doing in the ’80s.” With Hurst’s help, I soon identified three Texas men who were convicted largely by disproved arson forensics. The Observer has told their stories this year as part of a series that will continue into 2010. \(See above for a review of the three cases we have of Plano, Ed Graf from outside Waco and Alfred Guardiola of Houston was thin and occasionally absurd. Yet their cases, unlike Willingham’s, received little or no media attention. All three are almost surely innocent. All three remain in prison on sentences that stretch for decades to come. And they are far from alone. Texas fire statistics suggest that those falsely convicted of arson number in the hundreds. Hurst’s research leads him to contend that at least one-third, and perhaps even half, of all arson convictions have been based on junk science. In Texas, NOVEMBER 27, 2009 TEXASOBSERVER.ORG 9