RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Two Virginia men convicted of setting fires that killed their children are seeking to clear their names.
Attorneys for Davey J. Reedy and Michael L. Ledford contend that the science used during the investigations in the late 1980s and 1990s was flawed. But prosecutors stand by the men's convictions.
Reedy received two life sentences for the deaths of his two children in a 1987 fire in Roanoke. He was paroled in 2009 and has a clemency petition before Gov. Bob. McDonnell. Ledford is serving a 50-year sentence for the 1999 death of his son in a fire in Stuarts Draft. A clemency petition is being prepared for him.
Unlike convictions involving DNA, innocence claims involving arson are more difficult to prove.
More than a half dozen people convicted of arson have been cleared across the U.S. in recent years. In one case, a four-person panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded in 2010 that authorities used flawed science in determining a blaze was arson six years after Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for setting the fire that killed his three children.
"When you can prove some other dude done it you're in much better shape. With fires, it's not 'some other dude done it,' it's 'nobody done it,' and that's very difficult to prove once you're convicted," John J. Lentini, a fire investigation expert and consultant, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch (http://bit.ly/ORfO2H).
Lentini, author of the book "Scientific Protocol for Fire Investigation," said many of the rules of thumb for fire investigation during the 1980s and 1990s have turned out to be based on anecdotal evidence at best and "witchcraft" at worst.
"The ability to determine where a fire started is even more in doubt (now) than it was in the?'80s and?'90s," Lentini said. "The more you learn, the less you know."
Ledford, 36, has spent 12 years in prison for the fire in his apartment in Augusta County that severely burned his wife, Elise, and killed his son, Zachary, hours after the family celebrated his first birthday. The fire broke out after Ledford left to run errands and stop by the fire station where he was a volunteer firefighter.
For the first 4 ½ hours of his six-hour interrogation, Ledford was adamant that he had nothing to do with the fire. He confessed after he was falsely told he had failed a polygraph test.
The Innocence Project says false confessions played a part in 25 percent of the roughly 300 cases across the U.S. where convictions were proven wrongful by DNA testing.
Ledford claimed he dropped a lit candle on a chair as he left the apartment. But Richard J. Roby of Combustion Science & Engineering Inc., who was hired by Ledford's defense, testified that the fire could not have been set this way and that all possible accidental causes had not been ruled out.
A. Lee Erwin, the Augusta County prosecutor who helped convict Ledford, said Ledford put up the same defense at trial and was still convicted. Testimony showed Ledford's marriage was stormy and he had a $75,000 insurance policy on his wife and child.
Erwin said he has no doubts about Ledford's guilt.
Ray Ferris, a local prosecutor who helped convict Reedy, also is convinced of his guilt.
Reedy, 57, was convicted in 1988 of arson and two counts of homicide for the deaths of his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son.
Reedy said he was asleep on the couch when a fire broke out in the kitchen of his home. Reedy said he tried to save his children but was overcome by heat and smoke and jumped through a window.
Fire investigators said the blaze was set by pouring and igniting gasoline on the back porch and kitchen areas. Prosecutors honed in on Reedy, who had a drinking problem, and on statements he allegedly made to a neighbor threatening to burn his house down with his children and himself inside rather than allow his wife to win a divorce battle.
Tests at the state forensics laboratory determined there was gasoline on Reedy's shirt and on a wood floor. Lentini, the fire investigative expert, studied the chemical analysis in 2006 and concluded the test results did not prove there was gasoline on the shirt or the floor.
One of Reedy's lawyers, Thomas J. Bondurant Jr., a former federal prosecutor, contends the only evidence of arson were the test results and the fire marshal's interpretation of burn patterns. He said he does not believe authorities acted with any ill intent — they simply relied on what they believed to be legitimate science in 1988.
Ferris said years ago he was shown information challenging the burn patterns and new science that was not standard when Reedy was prosecuted. He said the new information "would have made for good discussion at trial if we'd had that kind of information" but that it was one-sided.
"I will tell you that I never had any doubt when I prosecuted the case, I have not had a doubt since prosecuting the case," he said. "We presented the commonwealth's evidence to the jury in a way that was fair to Davey Reedy."
Reedy's appeals and a petition for a writ of actual innocence have failed. He was paroled in 2009 and has had a clemency petition before governors since 2003.
In 1999, while a state delegate representing Virginia Beach, McDonnell wrote then-Gov. Jim Gilmore about Reedy's case telling him there was "a substantial amount of evidence to warrant further investigation."
Bondurant wrote McDonnell again on Jan. 23 requesting a meeting about Reedy's case but has yet to receive a response.
"Everyone knows there's something wrong with the conviction, just nobody wants to do anything about it because there was two dead children involved," Bondurant contends.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com