A Chicago man convicted of setting a fire which killed two people in 1993 will receive a long awaited retrial due to evidence from fire science expert witnesses. Prosecutors in the case have relented to repeated requests from the defense and agreed to a retrial after reviewing an expert report detailing modern advances in fire science technology which call the initial conviction into question.
Chicago Man Challenges Arson Conviction
Adam Gray has been serving a life sentence without parole since his 1996 conviction for setting a fire in 1993 which killed two people in an apartment building. Gray, who was 14 at the time of the fire, was angry with his girlfriend and allegedly set the fire in a building where she and her parents resided. Although the girlfriend and her family were able to escape, an elderly brother and sister who lived above the family died as a result of the fire. In addition to a confession, which Gray now claims was coerced, prosecutors relied on the testimony from fire science expert witnesses to earn a conviction and life sentence.
During Gray’s initial trial, fire investigators testified that they found charring and burn patterns consistent with a hot fire which was set intentionally and spread with an accelerant. Police investigators found a milk jug behind the burned building which contained what appeared to be the accelerant used to fan the fire, and a gas station clerk connected Gray to a purchase of fuel shortly before the fire was set. In the years since the conviction, attorneys working for Gray have identified advances in fire science investigation techniques which raise questions about the validity of the conclusions by police and the testimony by fire expert witnesses.
Modern Fire Science Expert Witnesses Challenge Arson Conviction
When Gray recanted his confession after his conviction and life sentence, his new legal team set to work challenging the physical evidence which prosecutors used to argue the fire had been set intentionally. According to his defense team, advances in fire investigation techniques suggest that the fire was not an arson at all, and what the police believed to be an accelerant was not present at the scene. Fire expert witnesses John Lentini and Gerald Hurst produced fire investigation expert witness reports which challenged the initial findings of the investigation and prosecution of Gray.
According to Hurst, fire investigators who examined the remains in 1993 were too quick to conclude that the charring and burn patterns were evidence of an arson. In an expert witness report to prosecutors, Hurst claimed that the fire investigators at the time did not have cause to rule out a conclusion that the fire started and spread accidentally. Lentini contributed his expert evaluation of the fire by saying that the substance found in the milk jug – which police concluded was the accelerant Gray used to spread the fire – was not actually present at the scene. Lentini told prosecutors that the substance in the milk jug, and the substance found on the wood of the building, were not only different, but neither were effective accelerants which could have been used to spread the fire.
Gray’s defense team presented the new fire expert witness evidence to prosecutors over a year ago, however, they were met with resistance. After initial refusals to retry the case based on the new fire science evidence, Chicago prosecutors have finally relented.
Chicago Man to Receive New Arson Trial
After a year of refusals, prosecutors in Chicago have determined that the evidence presented by modern fire expert witnesses is sufficient to grant Adam Gray a new trial for arson and murder. While the joint motion by prosecutors and defense attorneys for a new trial still needs approval from a local judge, the agreement by the district attorney to retry the case likely means Gray will have another day in court in the coming months.
Although the change of heart likely has a lot to do with the upcoming arrival of a newly elected DA who unseated the incumbent in a recent election, the prosecution’s willingness to retry a case with new expert witness testimony is an encouraging sign for other Chicago area defendants seeking to have convictions overturned based on advances in modern science.