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Thursday, May 31, 2012 03:53 am

A case of vodka

Innocence Project examines murder conviction

Vodka isn’t flammable.

That basic fact of fire could prove key in the case of William Amor, a DuPage County man serving a 45-year sentence for murder. While not committed to representing Amor, the Illinois Innocence Project based at University of Illinois Springfield has requested documents from prosecutors, who have balked.

Amor, 56, has been locked up since 1995, when his mother-in-law, Marianne Miceli, perished in a fire at a Naperville condominium. After a lengthy interrogation by police, Amor confessed to dousing a newspaper with vodka, dumping an ashtray containing a lit cigarette on the sodden paper, then leaving to catch a movie. Prosecutors say that Amor, who recanted after confessing, had hoped to collect insurance money.

An unemployed alcoholic who began seeing his future wife when she was 14 and less than half his age, Amor wasn’t a sympathetic defendant. He married the victim’s daughter once she turned 18, and the couple moved into his mother-in-law’s condo. The sentencing judge called him a “taker” and said that others might use the words “parasite” or “leech.”

One of Amor’s in-laws was a Naperville police officer, and investigators focused on Amor almost from the beginning. Five days after the fire, he said that he had spilled vodka on a newspaper. More than two weeks later, he was arrested after telling police that he had dumped a cigarette on the liquor-soaked paper.

An arson expert retained by the defense testified that vodka doesn’t light and that when he put a match to a vodka-soaked newspaper, the flame went out. Contradicting arson investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and Naperville Fire Department, who said the fire started where Amor confessed to lighting the newspaper, the defense expert said the blaze could have been sparked by an electrical problem in a different area of the condo.

A jury convicted Amor after hearing his taped confession, which defense attorneys said was coerced. The Daily Herald, a Chicago-area newspaper, reported at the time that Amor’s interrogation lasted 15 hours.

“They (police) were bringing him to a point where he would confess to bombing Pearl Harbor to get them to stop,” DuPage County assistant public defender Gloria Najera told the jury.

Fifteen years later, Amor might have a shot at getting out.

The Innocence Project is interested in Amor but needs more information to evaluate his case, says Erica Nichols Cook, a project attorney. The DuPage County state’s attorney’s office is refusing to turn over documents requested under the state Freedom of Information Act.

In refusing to turn over records that include investigative reports, results of polygraph examinations and expert reports, the state’s attorney’s office in April told the Innocence Project that it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act because it is a judicial branch of government and the law applies only to legislative and executive branches. It’s an argument that’s been tried before.

Two weeks before the DuPage County state’s attorney rejected the Innocence Project’s request, a judge ruled that the Livingston County state’s attorney, who had argued that he wasn’t subject to FOIA, must turn over records in a 2001 murder case. The case is now on appeal.

Don Craven, a Springfield attorney who represented the person who requested the Livingston County records, noted that courts don’t run prosecutors’ offices.

“The state’s attorney is obviously an independently elected officer and exercises discretion free from the control of the courts, as intended by the system,” Craven said.

Robert Berlin, DuPage County state’s attorney, said his office doesn’t believe in open access to case files.

“Can anyone come in without filing anything in court?” Berlin said. “There are rules of discovery that apply, and we follow the rules.”

The science of arson investigation has advanced since Amor’s trial, Cook said, and the Innocence Project wants an arson expert to evaluate records in his case. Records from the Naperville Fire Department show that the cause of the fire was at one point deemed undetermined.

“Then they change it from undetermined to arson based on the confession,” Cook said. “Where’s the science?”

Berlin said that he’s confident in the jury’s verdict. Amor set the fire, he said, although exactly how might never be known. The jury also heard evidence that Amor removed batteries from a smoke detector before the blaze, and photographs taken by a neighbor corroborate the conclusions of arson investigators who testified for the state. He also noted that a jury heard from defense experts, including the arson investigator who disagreed with state witnesses and a psychologist who testified that Amor may have confessed to stop interrogation and please police. The prosecutor said that he is not concerned by the Innocence Project’s interest.

“Regardless of whether it’s the Innocence Project or any other defense lawyer, the evidence was very strong,” Berlin said. “I’m certainly open to the possibility in any case that a jury may have reached a wrong decision. I’m all about seeking justice. I don’t see that in this case.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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