Thursday, May 19, 2016 12:05 am
Challenging ‘junk science’ in arson case
Naperville man seeks relief from murder conviction
A Naperville man is asking a judge to overturn his murder conviction on the grounds that the prosecution’s case was built on junk science.
William Amor spent the last 21 years behind bars for the death of his mother-in-law in a 1995 condo fire that investigators ruled as arson. His exoneration bid hinges on convincing the judge that new scientific research debunks old beliefs about how fire behaves.
The Illinois Innocence Project, based at the University of Illinois Springfield, took on Amor’s case and is working to get his conviction overturned.
On Sept. 10, 1995, Marianne Miceli of Naperville died of smoke inhalation from a fire at her condo complex. Her daughter, Tina, had married Amor earlier that year, and the pair lived with Marianne at the time. Amor was unemployed, and Tina worked at a pizza shop.
The Naperville police saw the fire as suspicious and concluded that Amor killed Marianne in hopes that Tina would collect on Marianne’s life insurance policy.
The police interrogated Amor for several hours in October 1995, and he eventually signed a written confession saying he spilled vodka on a newspaper and then knocked a smoldering cigarette butt into the paper. He left with Tina to see a movie, knowing a fire would probably result, according to the confession.
Amor later challenged the confession, saying it was coerced – sometimes with yells and violence – and that he hadn’t been advised of his Miranda rights until well into the interrogation. The trial court allowed the confession as evidence in the case, and an appellate court later agreed.
Amor was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison. His conviction was largely based on his contested confession and testimony from fire investigators who acted as the state’s expert witnesses.
Springfield attorney Erica Nichols Cook previously worked for the Illinois Innocence Project, and although she now works for the Illinois Office of the Appellate Defender, she continues to work on Amor’s case. She says the field of fire science has evolved significantly since the Miceli fire.
“Experts and fire investigators are now required to base their opinions on data and scientific findings, and burn patterns like those seen in Amor’s case are not sufficient,” she said. “Neither is an uncorroborated confession.”
When the Illinois Innocence Project accepted Amor’s case, the group asked Douglas Carpenter, a professional fire investigator from Massachusetts, to review the case. Carpenter’s report condemns the investigative methods used after the fire that killed Marianne Miceli, saying the original investigators “relied upon misapplication of the scientific method, as well as scientifically unreliable myths and misconceptions that had permeated the fire investigation community for years prior to the time of their investigation and testimony…”
He says the current standard handbook for fire investigation was first published in 1992 – three years before the Miceli fire – but the methods it contained were resisted by investigators until the early 2000s. Widely used benchmarks like the “normal” speed for a fire to burn versus an intentional fire were untested at the time, he says, yet they were treated as science and have since been debunked.
In Amor’s case, Carpenter says the original investigators failed to recognize the effects of “flashover,” in which heat from a fire in a room rises to the ceiling but can’t escape, so it forms a superheated layer overhead and eventually causes the entire room – including materials below the fire’s origin – to “autoignite.” Because many fire investigators previously believed that fire only burns upward, burnt flooring like that found in the Miceli fire was assumed to mean the fire started on the floor, probably with a flammable liquid.
In response, the prosecution in Amor’s case asked a different fire investigator, senior special agent John Golder from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, to review the case. After reviewing the evidence and interviewing Amor, Golder agreed with Carpenter that the original investigation was flawed, although he also faulted Carpenter for not interviewing Amor and misinterpreting statements by the original investigators.
Golder concluded that “ignition of the vodka by cigarettes was not a possible ignition scenario,” and that Amor was unlikely to have set the fire. Ultimately, Golder called on current investigators to interview Tina Miceli again about possible involvement in the fire.
Amor, who turns 60 this month, is scheduled to be paroled in March 2018.
Contact Patrick Yeagle at firstname.lastname@example.org.