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Man who served 42 years in prison freed by scientific evidence

Florida readers of this blog have probably heard about some of the recent cases around the country in which people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime years ago have been freed based on DNA analysis that was not available at the time of the trial. DNA evidence has demonstrated the innocence of a number of people convicted of felony charges including murder and rape.

But DNA analysis is not the only scientific field in which recent advances have led to overturning old injustices. Recently in Arizona a man who was convicted as a teenager was set free after 42 years in prison, based on advances in the science of fire investigation.

The man was convicted of multiple counts of murder for allegedly starting a 1972 fire in a Tucson hotel that killed 29 people. The man was 16 when the fire broke out during a Christmas party. The teenager was at the hotel watching the party when the fire started. Police interviewed him without his parents' consent and charged him with setting the blaze.

The judge who presided at the trial had severe misgivings about the young man's guilt and in later years tried to persuade legislators to commute his sentence. But any deal would have required the man to admit guilt, and he would not do this.

The man was convicted based on the testimony of a fire investigator who gave expert testimony. Recently attorneys working with the volunteer Arizona Justice Project asked the court to review the case. They argued that several experts, using modern fire investigation methods, would testify the blaze was not intentionally set. Eventually the man was dismissed based on a deal in which he pleaded no contest to the charges and got credit for time served.

When experts for the prosecution present scientific evidence to the jury, the job of defense counsel is to understand the science as well as the experts and use that knowledge to pick holes in the prosecution's theories. If a case turns on scientific evidence, the defense will usually present its own expert to cast doubt on the state's case.

Source: New York Daily News, "Man convicted in 1970 of setting Tucson hotel fire that killed 29 to be released Tuesday," March 31, 2013

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Andrew M. Coffey has been recognized as a Board Certified Civil Trial lawyer by the Florida Bar. Certification is the highest level of recognition by The Florida Bar of the competency and experience of attorneys in the areas of law approved for certification by the Supreme Court of Florida.

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