Published June 26, 2013
DALLAS – A Texas fire review panel flagged two quarter-century-old arson cases on Wednesday, saying investigators were mistaken in finding that the defendants set intentional fires.
The Texas State Fire Marshal's Office convened the panel of fire experts earlier this year to review cases for potential problems, in a rare collaboration with criminal justice advocates who say a significant number of arson-related convictions rest on faulty conclusions. The Innocence Project of Texas conducted a survey of arson cases and referred several to the panel.
The two cases identified Wednesday are the murder conviction of Ed Graf, a Waco-area man found guilty of setting a 1986 fire that killed his two stepsons, and the arson conviction of Douglas Victor Boyington for a 1988 fire at a Houston-area apartment building.
Both men are behind bars, though an appeal in Graf's case led to the conviction and life sentence being set aside. Prosecutors in McLennan County have acknowledged the original fire investigation is no longer valid, but say they intend to retry him based on other evidence. Graf remains jailed on $1.5 million bond.
Boyington is serving a 75-year prison sentence for arson, along with sentences for other charges, according to state records.
In both cases, letters sent by Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said the original investigators "failed to meet the present-day scientific standards of care."
The panel said the fire investigation did meet today's standards in a third case it reviewed, the 2002 murder conviction of Sadie Proffitt in Brazoria County, in southeast Texas.
The panel expects to issue findings on another case in the near future and to review five more cases later this year, Connealy said.
"These are older cases and the times were different, but nevertheless, their findings can't be supported by the standards of today and quite frankly, they should have been concerned back then," he said about the two flagged cases.
Graf was convicted of putting his two young stepsons in a shed and setting the building on fire. Investigators at the time who examined photos determined that charring was deepest near the shed entrance and on the doors. They said the charring and other patterns suggested a quick fire sparked by an accelerant such as lighter fluid.
Fire scientists now say those patterns alone aren't conclusive. The shed was demolished and taken to a landfill soon after the fire, which Connealy said in a letter "seriously undermined" any investigation.
Boyington was convicted of setting a fire that destroyed part of an apartment complex in Pasadena, southeast of Houston. According to Connealy's letter to the Harris County district attorney, the Pasadena fire investigator who used fire patterns to declare the blaze intentional was mistaken. The only lab sample in the investigation did not find any flammable liquids, and the file overall was missing key documentation, the letter said.
Boyington does not appear to have an appeal pending, according to online court records. Lynn Hardaway, a Harris County assistant district attorney, said prosecutors had not reviewed Boyington's case and would likely not do so unless he filed a petition to have his conviction overturned.
Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant.