Additional Arson-Murder Cases

Here are the profiles of four men across the U.S. who were convicted of arson-related murders -- and whose convictions are now being questioned based on advances in fire science

Suburb of Waco, Texas

SENTENCE: Life in prison (1988)

CRIME: Convicted of murdering his two stepsons in August of 1986 by setting a shed in his yard on fire while the two boys were inside.

PROSECUTION'S ARGUMENT: Among a few suspicious actions pointed out by the prosecution was that Graf purchased two $50,000 life insurance policies for the boys two months before the fire. Two arson experts testified that pour patterns shown in photographs of the scene indicated the use of a liquid accelerant, and that because the two boys were found on their backs, they must have been knocked unconscious by Graf before the fire -- the argument being that had they been awake, they would have been found face down, in a position to escape the fire. They also stated that the direction of the cracks in the charred wood suggested the fire's origin -- the floor, where burn patterns indicated that an accelerant was poured.

DISPUTED EVIDENCE: Walter Reaves, who later began investigating the case, found that most of the evidence linking Graf to the crime was circumstantial. There were no witnesses to the event and the shed was bulldozed after the fire, destroying the crime scene -- an investigator from the Fire Marshal's office had to examine the debris from the edge of a dump. Members of the community testified at trial that the boys were known for playing with fire. To Reaves, the only pieces of evidence tying Graf to the crime were the expert testimonies on the forensic evidence. Reaves hired Gerald Hurst to analyze the findings of the fire investigation report.

Hurst concluded that in light of more recent developments of arson science, the physical evidence used to convict Graf was flawed. He notes:

+  The fire had gone into flashover, which had left burn patterns that were previously believed to be indicators of a liquid accelerant.

+  Victims are often found on their backs in accidental fires as a result of passing out from inhaling noxious fumes.

+  The direction of cracks in burned wood gives no indication of which direction a fire has burned.

+  Because of the destruction of the scene coupled with the intensity of the fire in the shed, it is difficult to know how the fire started.

NOW: Walter Reaves continues to work towards a new trial for Graf. Reaves is waiting for a report from another expert expected to be finished this month (October 2010), and will then be filing it in court.


CRIME: Dougherty was arrested for murder 14 years after his two sons died in a house fire that he escaped.

SENTENCE: Death (2000)

PROSECUTION'S ARGUMENT: While the fire was initially ruled by investigators to be intentionally set, no arrests were made until 14 years later when Dougherty's second ex-wife (not the mother of the deceased children) claimed that he confessed to starting the fire with gasoline. Two jail house informants also say that Dougherty confessed to them. The original fire investigator testified that there were three origins of the fire, which indicated that the fire was intentionally set. According to court records, police were worried by his erratic behavior when they arrived on the scene.

DOUGHERTY'S STORY: Dougherty was asleep on his couch when he woke up to a fire in his living room. He ran outside to a neighbor's to grab a hose. When it was too short, he aimed for a window -- but the glass shattered, leaving a cut on his arm. The home was engulfed in flames. He tried to re-enter the house, but the fire was overpowering.

DISPUTED EVIDENCE: Dougherty's first attorney has admitted that he did not seek help from other arson experts. Since his conviction, three arson investigators have re-examined the case: Gerald Hurst, John Lentini and Angelo Pisani. Lentini argues that there is no evidence of arson, noting that:

+  The conclusion that there were multiple points of origin was invalid and not supported by evidence.

+  The original investigator's conclusions of arson were based on his subjective experience and not actual science.

+  Dougherty's counsel failed to challenge the fire investigator's findings, which would have been easy to do, given fire investigation literature that was available in 2000.

+  The original investigator didn't dispel the possibility that the fire was a result of flashover, and didn't accurately explain the phenomenon to the jury.

After Gerald Hurst's examination of the case, he also believed that the evidence, which appeared to indicate multiple origins of the fire, was caused by flashover.

Dougherty's new attorneys say that studies show that jailhouse informants' testimonies are not reliable -- here is one such study [PDF] from the Northwestern University Law School. The mother of the boys that were killed in the fire, Dougherty's first wife, has said that she doesn't believe that he murdered the children.

NOW: Dougherty's case is in the hands of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Because of frustrations with the review process and the length of time it will take for the state court to review the case, Dougherty's new attorneys have filed a habeas petition with Federal Judge Juan Sanchez with the hope that he will intervene, and are filing status reports with him every six months.

Modesto, Calif.

CRIME: Convicted of murder by setting his rental property on fire, resulting in the death of his tenants: a woman and her two children.

SENTENCE: Life in prison (1999)

PROSECUTION'S ARGUMENT: When the fire occurred, Souliotes was in the process of evicting the tenants and selling his property for a lower price than his insurance on the house was valued. A neighbor said that she had seen a van drive back and forth by the house several times before the driver parked and ran into the home with something resembling a pillowcase. A flammable substance was found on Souliotes' shoes and in the debris of the fire. Investigators found burn patterns, deep charring, and burned holes in the debris, which were believed to be evidence of arson.

DISPUTED EVIDENCE: A witness said that she didn't recognize Souliotes' car as the one she had seen outside of the house and that her view of the house was obscured. Her physical description of the man she saw didn't match Soulitoes' appearance. She also failed to recognize him in a lineup. She later pinpointed Souliotes at trial. Souliotes' first trial ended in a hung jury. The defense expert that testified in the first trial pointed to a faulty stove in the house with a history of a gas leak, but was not called to testify in the second trial, where Souliotes was ultimately convicted.

John Lentini re-examined the physical evidence of the case and concluded that the substance found on Souliotes' shoes likely was a natural part of the shoe itself, and was chemically different from the liquid found in the debris of the fire; therefore, they could not be of the same origin.

Another expert, Randy Watson, stated that primary pieces of evidence -- burn patterns, burned holes in the floor, and charring -- were all characteristics of accidental fires.

NOW: Souliotes has recently been granted an evidentiary hearing from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lowell, Mass.

CRIME: Convicted of the murder of eight people in a house fire in Lowell, MA.

SENTENCE: Life in prison (1983)

PROSECUTOR'S ARGUMENT: After being questioned by police, Rosario signed a confession stating that he and two friends used Molotov cocktails to start the fire in revenge of a bad drug deal. To the investigator, burn patterns found on the floor, evidence of two origins of the fire, and burning and charring on the doors and walls were all indicators of arson. After seeing an article stating that Rosario had been arraigned in conjunction with the case, a witness reported seeing a man near a window of the house that looked like Rosario.

DISPUTED EVIDENCE: Debris samples tested negative for liquid accelerants, and no remains of Molotov cocktails were found at the scene of the fire.

Since the trial, the translator during Rosario's five hour questioning with police has issued an affidavit stating that Rosario was delusional during his interrogation and incoherent when he signed the confession. In addition to the affidavit, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Judith G. Edersheim has reviewed the case and has said that Rosario's behavior during questioning could be explained by delirium tremens as a result of alcohol withdrawal. According to Edersheim, Rosario had liver damage that was indicative of alcohol abuse.

Rosario's attorney has since admitted to possibly being distracted from the case by vehicular homicide charges that he faced at the time against the same DA's office that he opposed during Rosario's trial.

Experts Craig Beyler and John Lentini have reviewed the case and both argue that assumptions were made based on outdated fire science, and that investigators failed to prove the fire was intentionally set.

Among the experts' arguments:

+  There was no evidence of a flammable liquid or remains from a bottle used to make a Molotov cocktail, making it very unlikely that they were used.

+  The finding of multiple origins of the fire was not based on current arson science, notably the scientific understanding of flashover.

+  Charring on the floor and low burning is no longer indicative of a presence of flammable liquids.

+  Accidental causes were not eliminated.

NOW: Two new attorneys, Esther Horwitz and Andrea Petersen, have taken on Rosario's case. According to Horwitz, they are currently in the process of having more experts review the case, notably an expert on false confessions, and are working towards filing a motion for a new trial.


blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

posted october 19, 2010

Death by Fire home page / watch online
FRONTLINE series home | Privacy Policy | Journalistic Guidelines | PBS Privacy Policy | PBS Terms of Use

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation