On the evening of Nov. 20, 1999, a fire broke out in Angela Garcia’s home. Angela gathered her two children into her bedroom and broke the window to escape. While breaking the window, Angela lost the girls in the thick, black smoke. Despite rescue efforts, neither of her daughters survived the fire. After reviewing the scene and using an accelerant-sniffing dog (that did not detect any accelerant), investigators determined that the origin of the fire was a candle burning in the dining room, therefore ruling it accidental. For safety purposes, the house was razed two days after the fire, therefore eliminating any further analysis of the scene.
Following the fire, investigators learned that Angela had overvalued the contents of her home on her renter’s insurance paperwork. The cause of the fire was changed from “accidental” to “incendiary,” and Angela was arrested.
Angela had three separate trials. The jury in the first trial found her guilty only of insurance fraud. During the second trial, a jailhouse informant claimed that Angela set the fire intentionally. The jury determined this was insufficient proof of arson and murder, and could not reach a verdict on any of the charges.
It was the third trial that resulted in Angela’s conviction. During this trial, the State called a number of witnesses who had not testified in either of the first two trials. The State also claimed to have found—just prior to the beginning of the third trial—photographs that had previously been undeveloped.
One of the new witnesses claimed that a lighter was found on the stairway landing after the last of the fire was extinguished. Two more witnesses testified that, based on the newly-discovered photographs, a second area of origin had been identified on the staircase. The State’s investigators testified that the fire originated in both the northeast corner of the dining room on the first floor and on the stairway leading to the second floor. And, to support that conclusion, one of the investigators used the newly-discovered photographs as evidence of a distinct line of demarcation that was on the left side of stairs, showing little damage on the right side, indicating that some kind of combustible or ignitable material had been poured there.
Angela was convicted, and while she’s been serving her sentence, arson science and the experts’ understanding about arson have changed significantly. In 2011, a fire expert and author of one of the leading texts on fire investigation reviewed the investigation of the fire at Angela’s home and declared that the State experts’ findings were not based on scientific knowledge.
According to today’s professional standards, it was improper for the original investigators to both determine the fire was incendiary, and to further claim that ignitable liquids were used. A specially trained dog failed to detect any accelerant in 1999 and no laboratory testing was conducted. Based on that alone, it was improper to claim it was incendiary.
The expert found further problems with the State’s witnesses’ determination of the origin of the fire. The investigators did not conduct a fire spread analysis, failed to consider the role of ventilation and structural elements, and also failed to consider and eliminate all potential accidental ignition sources before determining that the fire was incendiary, in violation of currently accepted practices. Most significant was the original investigators’ failure to adequately consider, test, and eliminate the electrical system, a floor lamp, candles, and all other potential accidental causes prior to ruling the fire incendiary.
The expert noted that, while making cause and origin determinations, investigators only briefly observed and minimally documented other areas of the home. Other potential causes of the fire were not considered, and no evidence was collected from the scene, precluding any electrical sources or appliances from being tested later as potential causes.
The State investigators’ failure to fully understand fire and smoke dynamics did not only affect their cause and origin determinations, but it also caused them to doubt Angela’s account of what occurred the night of the fire. The erroneous origin determination led to unfounded assumptions as to the cause of the fire and the elimination of other potential causes without proper scientific testing. There is no reliable evidence that the fire started in either the dining room or on the stairs, and no reliable evidence that it was incendiary in nature or caused by the use of ignitable fluids. Several potential accidental causes have been identified, most notably an electrical failure, which is supported by photographs and analysis of the wiring in the home.
Because the advancements in arson and fire science are relatively recent, Angela did not get the benefit of this science at the time of her trial. Fortunately for Angela, the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas granted a hearing on her motion for new trial in Spring 2016, giving her an opportunity to present the new evidence and demonstrate how the State got it wrong. On the day of the hearing, the State offered Angela a plea deal that would allow her to plead guilty to lesser offenses and be released from prison in 2022. If Angela did not take the deal, she ran the risk of not being granted a new trial, or again being convicted if tried for the fourth time, resulting in at least 33 more years of incarceration. Angela made the difficult decision to accept the plea; she will be freed from prison Feb. 16, 2022. For an in-depth look at Angela’s case and plea deal, click here
On April 1, 2006, Timothy Howard found his wife of 25 years, Delilah, hanging from the basement ceiling by her bathrobe belt. He called 911 and performed CPR. Sadly, Delilah had already passed away; she had, however, left four suicide notes—one for Tim and one for each of their three children.
The suicide notes did not dissuade the State from accusing Tim of Delilah’s murder. At Tim’s trial, the State relied upon the testimony of a fellow in forensic pathology who was not yet board certified. She testified that Delilah’s hyoid bone was still intact and there were no petechial hemorrhages. Although these medical findings were consistent with suicide, the fellow then testified that Delilah’s death was caused by ligature strangulation. She ruled the death a homicide.
The State told the jury that Tim claimed to have found Delilah hanging from a single nail, despite the fact that the police summaries of Tim’s statement contradicted that. The State presented testimony of a witness who performed load tests to determine how much weight the nails from the scene could hold, and determined that none of the three nails could have singularly held Delilah’s 135 pounds.
Tim presented his own expert testimony that a single nail from the scene could hold up to 150 pounds before bending, and that a common nail and finishing nail used together could hold up to 140 pounds before bending. And Tim’s initial interview with police showed that Tim stated he had found Delilah hanging from one or more nails in the overhead floor joists. Tim also presented Dr. Suzanna Dana, a renowned board-certified pathologist, who testified that the physical findings were consistent with the traditional indications of suicide, and Delilah’s death was indeed a suicide.
But the jury sided with the State. On February 5, 2008, Tim was sentenced to life in prison for the aggravated murder of his wife and for tampering with evidence.
In 2011, the Wrongful Conviction Project discovered Delilah Howard’s Netcare records from six months prior to her death. The records had not been discovered by Tim’s trial counsel and were not admitted at his trial. The Netcare records reveal that Delilah had attempted suicide three times before, that she abused illegal drugs, and that just six months before her death, she wanted to take her own life. The Netcare professionals who examined Delilah were not confident that she would recover.
In November 2012, the Franklin County Coroner conducted a review of Delilah Howard’s death. The coroner considered autopsy photographs, coroner and autopsy reports, medical records, and Tim’s statements. Upon completion of her review, the coroner recanted her office’s former findings and corrected Delilah’s cause of death as “asphyxia due to compression of the neck.” The manner of death was changed from “homicide” to “could not be determined.”
The coroner’s report stated that, in its initial findings, her office had incorrectly attributed Delilah’s death to ligature strangulation. Instead, the physical evidence, the absence of defensive wounds, a history of suicide attempts, abuse of illegal drugs, and suicide notes were “suggestive of suicide.” The coroner also discovered a depression on Delilah’s left knee, which indicated that Delilah was likely leaning on or against a hard surface at the time of her death, quite possibly the chair found near her body. The chair would have borne some of Delilah’s weight, thereby challenging the State’s theory of how much weight the nail(s) could have held.
Despite the recantation of the coroner, the corrected cause and manner of Delilah’s death, Delilah’s suicide notes and three previously documented suicide attempts, the prosecuting attorney opposed Tim’s efforts to obtain a new trial for more than five years.
However, on February 11, 2016, the Ohio Court of Appeals for the Tenth District unanimously held that the trial court must consider the new evidence at a hearing, and a hearing was subsequently set
for June 6-7, 2017. On the morning of the hearing, Tim and the prosecutor entered into an agreement under which Tim would enter an Alford
plea to lesser charges. The Alford
plea allowed Tim to continue to maintain his innocence. Though innocent and ready to fight, Tim agreed to the plea so that he could return home to his family and friends, rather than spend what was sure to be several more years in prison while litigating his case.
On July 8, 2017, Tim Howard—an innocent man—was freed from prison after 10 years and seven months of incarceration. He was greeted by his family and members of the Wrongful Conviction Project staff.
Upon his release, Tim Howard and his family prepared a statement, which can be read here
Sixteen-year-old “neighborhood mechanic,” Raymond Warren was convicted of murder in the 1994 death of Wendell Simpson. Police had been called to an accident scene in which a car had crashed into a house and the driver had been shot and killed. Two men reported that they stopped when they noticed the wrecked car and the driver leaning out the window, waving his arms. One of the men reached inside the car and put it in park. He reached in again and turned off the engine. Neither of the men called 911 and both were preparing to leave the scene when the police arrived. The men were interviewed, but neither was fingerprinted or tested for gunshot residue (GSR).
Raymond Warren approached the accident scene on his scooter. Raymond told police he had been with two friends when the victim approached them, looking to buy drugs. The boys refused and walked away. Moments later, they heard gunshots.
Several hours later, Raymond agreed to be interviewed by police. He was Mirandized, waived his rights and voluntarily submitted to a GSR test. Officers performed an Atomic Absorption test and took swabs of his right palm, the back of his right hand, his left palm, and the back of his left hand. Barium and antimony—two components of GSR—were detected only on the palm of Raymond’s right hand. Raymond is left-handed.
At trial, the two boys who had been with Raymond helping him fix the tire on his scooter the night of the murder, testified against him. However, in 1999, one of the boys executed an affidavit recanting his testimony. In the affidavit, the young man admitted that his testimony was false and that he had been told if he did not testify against Raymond, he would be charged with the murder. In 2008, the second young man came forward to recant his trial testimony. He, too, explained that he was told he would be charged with the murder if he did not testify against Raymond. He said he lied because he was young and intimidated by the police.
Since Raymond’s trial, the scientific community has all but abandoned atomic absorption testing due to its limitations, unreliability and its tendency toward false positives. Beginning in 2000, analysts began to identify “unique gunshot residue” as a fused particle of barium, antimony and lead. The atomic absorption test used in Raymond’s case tested only for barium and antimony separately. New research has shown that a number of substances contain both barium and antimony. Most notable among these substances—for a mechanic like Raymond—are brake pads. The finding that some brake pads have been found to contain barium, antimony and even lead has especially prompted the industry shift away from atomic absorption testing. Typically, the particles in brake pads are not fused, making them distinguishable from those found in GSR, except in atomic absorption testing, as was used in Raymond’s case.
In addition to the likelihood that Raymond’s brake pads led to the positive result on the Atomic Absorption test, there was also a high risk of contamination. Recent studies have shown that GSR is readily present in the back of police cars and in police stations, is easily transferrable, and may lead to falsely “positive” GSR tests. And in this case, it is entirely possible that Raymond came into contact with GSR at some point during his arrest—as he was handcuffed, seated in the back of the police car, or inside the police station.
But during Raymond’s trial, there was no testimony that contact with brake pads could cause a positive result, and there was very limited testimony about contamination. Instead, the State’s witness testified that the Atomic Absorption Test showed that Raymond shot a gun, handled a weapon, or was the victim of a shooting. The barium and antimony found on Raymond’s non-dominant hand was likely caused by his contact with the brake pads on his scooter, contamination, or both.
This scientific discovery is newly discovered evidence that undermines what was presented at his 1995 trial. Raymond’s case is pending in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas.
On Oct. 31, 2010, then 17-year-old Octavius Williams attended a family Halloween party at his father’s apartment. Toward the end of the party, a fight broke out in the backyard of the apartment, and several party-goers began shooting. When the fight ended, one man had been shot multiple times. He was taken to the hospital where he survived, but suffered lower-body paralysis.
Police arrived at the scene minutes after the shooting, and found Octavius, as well as several others, upstairs in the apartment. Because he matched the victim’s description of the shooter – a thin, African-American, male in his late teens – the police tested Octavius’ hands for gunshot residue. The test came back negative. Within days of the shooting, police began to hear from several family members that it was Octavius’ older brother, Ricky Williams, who shot the victim. However, Ricky was never tested for gunshot residue because he fled the scene before police arrived. The victim was initially unable to name his shooter, and at the time of the shooting, he had a blood alcohol level of .27. When he arrived at the hospital, he was in and out of consciousness and hospital workers noticed the obvious smell of alcohol on his breath. When the victim described the shooter to his family members, they told doctors the description matched “Rick.” However, police had heard that “Tay-Tay” (Octavius’ nickname) was the shooter. Days after the shooting (and while the victim was still in the hospital) police showed him a photo array. While the array contained Octavius’ picture, it did not contain pictures of Ricky or anyone else who attended the party. The victim selected Octavius from the photo array and claimed he was the person who shot him. During his stay in the hospital, the victim, who had a history of mental illness, suffered hallucinations. Months later, the victim was shown a photo array that contained Ricky’s photograph, but, having already selected Octavius, did not change his identification.
Octavius was charged with attempted murder and several related offenses. At trial, the victim testified that Octavius was the shooter. Multiple witnesses, however, testified that Octavius was upstairs in the apartment when the fight and shooting occurred. Witnesses who watched the fight from the window in the apartment testified that Ricky shot the victim. However, despite this evidence, Octavius was convicted and sentenced to 15 years of incarceration.
Since Octavius’ conviction, Ricky has admitted that he shot the victim and that Octavius is innocent. The witnesses who testified at Octavius’ trial that he was innocent and that Ricky was the shooter have affirmed their testimony.
With the help of the Wrongful Conviction Project, Octavius is fighting his wrongful conviction.