SUB-HEADING: "On a Monday morning last spring, as downtown Cleveland got a facelift before the Republican National Convention, 39-year-old Angela Garcia sat anxiously in a courtroom wearing jail scrubs and clogs. It was the day after Mother’s Day, the 16th time the holiday had passed since her children died. Garcia waited for the judge’s cue, then stood up to do something she had sworn she’d never do."

GIST: (The plea): “Guilty,” she said when asked how she pleaded to the killing of her daughter Nyeemah Garcia, age 3. “Guilty,” she repeated, her voice cracking at the name of her second daughter, 2-year-old Nijah Evans. In the back of the courtroom, her sisters quietly wiped away tears. Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Astrab asked her to reiterate that she had, indeed, set the fire that killed her children. Yes, Garcia said, suppressing a sob. Nobody had expected the day to go this way. Not Garcia’s family, who stood firmly by her side over the past decade and a half as she swore the 1999 fire had been a tragic accident. Not her lawyer, Assistant Ohio Public Defender Joanna Sanchez, who had prepared for months to make the case for a new trial. And not the two expert witnesses for the defense, Richard Roby and John DeHaan, distinguished fire scientists who flew hundreds of miles to testify that “there was no evidence of arson,” as both insisted afterward. All of them left the courtroom certain that Garcia had just pleaded guilty to a crime that was never a crime at all. Garcia had been convicted of setting her house on fire, intentionally killing her daughters. Prosecutors said she was driven by greed: tens of thousands of dollars in insurance money and the freedom to pursue a life with her fiancé. The state of Ohio tried to convict her three times — at first it sought the death penalty — and after two hung juries, finally succeeded in May 2001. Garcia was sentenced to life, with a shot at parole after 49 1/2 years. She would be 72. But as with many arson cases that have come under scrutiny in recent years, the evidence against Garcia was flawed — based on circumstantial evidence, a flimsy fire investigation, and junk science. Garcia spent more than a decade in prison before her case was taken up by the Ohio Public Defender in Columbus. In 2015, she won a rare evidentiary hearing, with Sanchez arguing that advances in fire science should qualify as new evidence in Garcia’s case. The motion was based on a review of the evidence by Dr. DeHaan, whose book, “Kirk’s Fire Investigation,” is a staple in the industry. DeHaan, who has since retired, has spent years working to exonerate people wrongly accused of arson. His report exposed the lack of scientific validity behind Garcia’s conviction, pointing to accidental scenarios that were never explored, along with recent scientific studies that have further undermined the state’s case. “The court should be forced to realize it was a wrongful conviction, set it aside, and be done with it,” DeHaan said on the day of the hearing. For Dr. Roby, who testified at Garcia’s final trial in 2001, the hearing was a second chance to set the record straight about a fire scenario that had grown even more dubious with each new scientific revelation about fire behavior. “As the years have gone by, this case has looked more and more and more egregious,” Roby told Sanchez when she asked him to return to Cleveland for the evidentiary hearing. He flew on his own dime. But the chance never came. On the morning of May 9, 2016, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Richard Bell pre-empted the proceedings with an unexpected plea offer. The deal required Garcia to admit she set the fire, keeping the aggravated arson conviction intact while reducing the charge of first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. Rather than gamble on the hope of a new trial — which, if granted, still carried the risk of another guilty verdict — Garcia could be out of prison in less than six years. Plea deals are central to the machinery of the criminal justice system — and often the best of a bad set of options for the innocent and guilty alike. But the result is that people often plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, a problem so pervasive the Innocence Project just launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the issue. In cases that turn on flawed forensics — a growing concern across the country — the effect is to preserve junk science rather than expose and correct it. In the time since Garcia went to prison, more than 50 people have been exonerated in arson cases across the country, with many more convictions overturned. Spurring the trend is the debunking of long-held myths that once guided fire investigation, along with some shocking miscarriages of justice. In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for killing his three children over the protests of fire experts who had dismantled the forensic evidence in his case. While the state has refused to admit its mistake, the Texas State Fire Marshal subsequently took the unprecedented step of re-examining old arson convictions in collaboration with the Innocence Project. Last November, Texas finally exonerated 68-year-old Sonia Cacy, 25 years after she was wrongfully convicted of a 1991 arson murder. More recently, Utah prosecutors dropped charges against a man named Herbert Landry, who fled Hurricane Katrina only to be arrested for trying to burn down his apartment complex in 2006. Like Garcia’s conviction, his two-day trial hinged on visual evidence that had long been discredited in the scientific community — burn patterns found at the scene of the fire, which investigators claimed as proof that he had poured a flammable liquid. In fact, the fire was an accident. In the courtroom last May, one of Garcia’s sisters muttered what others were thinking: The state’s case was weak, and Bell knew it. “They ain’t got nothing,” she said under her breath. “That’s why they’re doing that shit.” Bell was the same man who convicted Garcia in 2001; he had never shown signs he would strike a deal. Garcia herself had declined a plea offer from a different prosecutor years before, refusing to say she killed her children. But now, after 15 years in prison, she suddenly had a glimpse of freedom. She would take it. As the decision sunk in, Garcia’s mother, Lucy, left the courtroom abruptly, unable to bear the sight of her daughter pleading guilty. “We’ve been doing this for so long,” Garcia’s older sister Judy said afterward, with a weary mix of sadness and relief. The official ending, as told by the state of Ohio, is that Angela Garcia was guilty of arson all along. “Garcia’s plea comports with the 2001 testimony of a jailhouse snitch named Tonya Lanum,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, “who said that Garcia told her: ‘I didn’t mean to kill my kids. It was all a misunderstanding and it was supposed to be an insurance thing.’” But an investigation of the case by The Intercept reveals a more likely scenario, in which the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office aggressively prosecuted an innocent woman using unreliable evidence, then orchestrated a plea deal to cover it up. In the years since Garcia went to prison, state actors central to her conviction — including the trial judge — have been arrested for ethical crimes, seriously calling into question their handling of her case. And perhaps most importantly, evidence uncovered in the months after the plea deal last spring shows that Bell and his colleague Mary McGrath were perfectly aware that their 2001 conviction of Garcia was based on junk science. Rather than grapple with the possibility that they had wrongly imprisoned a young mother who lost her children, Sanchez says, they “offered the deal as a way to make the case go away as fast as possible.” Today, Garcia’s guilty plea leaves several unanswered questions."

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