Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Letitia Smallwood; Pennsylvania: Arson "science" case: Convicted in 1973, her lawyers contend that the 1972 investigator, a now-deceased Pennsylvania State Police trooper, had no scientific basis for concluding that the apartment fire was caused by arson. Decision reserved. Pennlive.

STORY: Judge weighs arguments in Carlisle woman's appeal of 1973 arson-murder conviction" published by Penn live on March 28, 2015.

GIST: "A Cumberland County judge is weighing whether to grant a new trial to a Carlisle woman who was convicted of arson-murder in 1973. At the conclusion of a Friday hearing held in the Cumberland County Courthouse, Judge Edward Guido requested that attorneys for Letitia Smallwood and the district attorney's office file briefs in the next two weeks, summarizing aspects of their respective arguments, before he would reach a decision. Smallwood, 62, currently locked up in Muncy State Prison, was convicted for lighting a fire at an apartment building on North Pitt Street in Carlisle in 1972 that killed two people. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a non-profit that fights wrongful convictions, argues that the investigation into the fire was fundamentally flawed and that Smallwood, then 20, had nothing to do with the blaze.........Letitia Smallwood's attorneys argued throughout Friday's hearing that the 1972 investigator, a now-deceased Pennsylvania State Police trooper, had no scientific basis for concluding that the apartment fire was caused by arson. Jason Sutula, a fire investigation expert, said that the trooper appeared to rely entirely on the testimony of two witnesses to reach his conclusion rather than physical evidence - a practice considered unsound by modern investigation standards.  Additionally, Sutula said, it appeared that that there were inconsistencies in what the witnesses initially said about the fire to police and what they said during Smallwood's trial. The trooper also appeared to reach his conclusion early into the investigation before effectively ruling out other possible causes of the fire - like a tossed cigarette or an electrical fault.  "Once you have that preconceived notion you have arrived at your conclusion," Sutula said. Sutula said that based on the documentation of the investigation he had reviewed, he ultimately believed there was only one point of origin of the fire, somewhere on the building's second floor, and not two as Sweet concluded. He said there was no proof, from what he could see, to accurately determine the cause of the blaze. "It's my opinion that Trooper Sweet's conclusion that the fire was incendiary was premature and incorrect," he said. Charles Volkert, senior assistant District Attorney for Cumberland County, argued that Sutula was "playing Monday morning quarterback" to a 43-year-old investigation and that there may have been elements of the investigation that weren't included in the materials that Sutula has seen. Volkert added that while Smallwood's attorneys had tried to portray her appeal as a case similar to recent high-profile appeals of old arsons, which resulted in rulings that determined the investigation was flawed, this case was different. Volkert said those other appeals hinged on some new scientific evidence whereas Smallwood's attorneys were arguing purely about investigation methodology. "Here we are applying new methodology," he said. "This is an academic exercise.""

The entire story can be found at:

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