Set free by science
“Fire science in the’80s and ’90s was more of an art form than a science,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project’s Chicago office. “Today it is much more scientific.” Illinois Innocence Project is a program of University of Illinois Springfield.
Kaeseberg is discussing the recent release on bond of William “Bill” Amor, who spent 22 years in prison for a 1997 conviction for murder and aggravated arson. At the time, and at the end of 15 hours of interrogation, an exhausted Amor had confessed to setting the fire that caused the death of his mother-in-law, Marianne Miceli, by dowsing newspapers in vodka and deliberately setting the fire which killed her. However, Judge Liam Brennan ruled this past April to vacate Amor’s conviction, concluding that “the defendant’s confession… is scientifically impossible.”
Much like DNA testing, fire science developments can provide new insights into old cases, according to Kaeseberg. “It is now indisputable that vodka could not start a fire in the way that the confession proclaimed,” she said. The case is not only significant for Amor but is also a new precedent. “This is the first time in Illinois where a court has found advancements in fire science to constitute new evidence of innocence rising to the level where someone is entitled to a new trial.” Amor’s case is scheduled for retrial Sept. 12.
There was resistance to the introduction of the new line of scientific evidence during court proceedings. “Speaking generally, it is hard for some investigators to look back at old methods and see them as now being wrong,” Kaeseberg said. “During the hearing, the state maintained that the evidence presented at the time of the trial was still valid but the judge agreed with us that the new developments call into question the reliability of the conviction.” Amor was released on bond only one year short of completing his entire sentence.
“Bill is a wonderful person – he is incredibly strong,” Kaeseberg said of her client. “He withstood 22 years of incarceration for something he didn’t do and came out of that with a smile on his face.” She says that Amor is absolutely determined to see his name cleared. “He could have kept his head down and finished out the remainder of his sentence, done his time and just moved on with his life in a year from now. But the desire to have the world know that he’s innocent means more to him than his freedom does.”
Anyone being released from prison faces a hard road, but Amor may be embarking on an even more difficult transition than most. “The woman who died in this fire was a person he cared deeply about,” said Kaeseberg. “He also lost his wife and family, not to mention 22 years of his life. He is now 62 years old and is starting out with absolutely nothing.” Despite his lack of family and social support, the Innocence Project team sees reason for hope. “It is devastating. Starting from scratch and having very little in the way of resources to pull from is an incredibly difficult journey but he is facing it with the same strength and optimism that got him through those 22 years in prison,” Kaeseberg said. “He will be OK, but it’s a struggle. I mean, what employer is going to hire him with a retrial hanging over his head?”
As for that retrial, Kaeseberg and the rest of Amor’s legal team (made up of Erica Nichols Cook, formerly of the Illinois Innocence Project, now pro bono counsel for Amor and current director of the Wrongful Conviction Division for the Iowa State Public Defender; Tara Thompson, staff attorney with the Exoneration Project; and Kevin Caraher of the law firm Cozen O’Connor and pro bono attorney for Amor) are hopeful that justice will prevail. “Not every wrongful conviction case involves malice on the part of the prosecutors and the police at the outset – sometimes they just genuinely get it wrong,” Kaeseberg said. “Now everyone needs to get on the same page and come to terms with the fact that an egregious error happened here.” She is hopeful that the state will realize that the confession was false and agree with Judge Brennan that the science does not support that this was arson, for more than one reason. “To use the time and resources and money for a retrial when there are so many problems in this state to begin with seems like a waste,” she said.
Contact Scott Faingold at firstname.lastname@example.org.