GIST: "The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has announced the exoneration of a man who was convicted of a 1984 North Philadelphia house fire that claimed the life of a man and injured three others. 

District Attorney Larry Krasner says Harold Staten has now been exonerated. 

According to police information from October 30, 1984, a fire began at approximately 3:38 a,m, on the 3000 block of North Percy Street when a row home caught fire. That fire claimed the life of Charles Harris who died at the hospital due to thermal burns. 

At the time, police interviewed several witnesses, and on March 26, 1986, Harold Staten was arrested for murder and arson. His arrest was based on the information from a 17-year-old witness, who told detectives that she saw Staten at the door of the house the night of the fire. 

Staten was convicted in October following a two-day bench trial in which the Fire Marshal lieutenant testified that the fire was deliberately set using an accelerant and the 17-year-old witness gave conflicting accounts of having seen Staten outside the home. 

Staten was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. 

After a later cross-examination, the 17-year-old admitted to using cocaine the night of the fire. 

Information undermining the 17-year-old’s credibility would be uncovered years later in 1988 when her roommate testified that the witness came home from a disco on the night of the fire so “drunk, pissy drunk” and “really intoxicated… very intoxicated,” that he and her boyfriend had to carry her upstairs to bed. 

“Substantial changes in fire science have significantly altered modern fire investigation standards and accepted practices. Current fire investigations rely on a modern understanding of fire dynamics and the scientific method — all of which was absent from the investigation in this case,” Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) Assistant Supervisor ADA Carrie Wood said. “A review of Mr. Staten’s conviction, which included a report from a former ATF Special Agent and Certified Fire Investigator, led us to conclude that there is little credible information that could stand up his murder conviction today. We are pleased that the Court of Common Pleas vacated Mr. Staten’s conviction and granted our motion to withdraw all charges against him.”  

“Due to the passage of time, we unfortunately may never know how the fire began that killed Charles Harris nearly four decades ago. Modern technologies such as smoke detectors have made most residential fires survivable, and my office will continue to work with our public safety partners in the city to achieve that fully realizable goal.”  

The fire was investigated by the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Fire Marshal’s Office along with Philadelphia Police. A then-lieutenant with the Fire Marshal on the scene told investigators that the fire had been intentionally set in the vestibule by an “open flame applied to an accelerant.” The following day, however, a chemical analysis by the Philadelphia Criminalistics Laboratory showed no accelerant was detected in the samples of floorboards taken from the vestibule. 

In 2020, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project filed a new Post Conviction Relief Act petition on Staten’s behalf. After reviewing Staten’s arrest and conviction, officials concluded that the Fire Marshal’s origin and cause determinations were not supportable under modern fire investigation standards and that the cause of the fire should be considered undetermined, rather than arson."

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