Appellate Court Overturns Arson Verdict

The appellate court in Albany recently threw out a jury’s verdict convicting James Richardson of arson [1].   Because two judges dissented, the case may be appealed as of right to New York’s highest court. Arson investigators concluded the fire originated in the northwest corner of Richardson’s kitchen, where a space heater, refrigerator, stove, microwave, water cooler and outside light were all plugged into a single power strip.  Two arson investigators testified that they ruled out all accidental causes, including electrical.  A lab report confirmed the presence of a medium petroleum distillate on a portion of the baseboard where the fire originated.  Richardson was convicted by the jury of arson and sentenced to an aggregate term of 3 ½ to 10 years in prison.

The appellate court overturned the jury verdict, finding it to be against the weight of the evidence.  Neither arson investigator could pinpoint the “actual cause of the fire.”  The Court stated investigators did not have the majority of appliances in the kitchen inspected [2].    The investigators did not explain why three circuit breakers had tripped.  The investigators could not identify the specific distillate found and did not exclude paint thinners and other products that were stored in the house.  The Court also concluded the Record lacked evidence that Richardson had a motive to commit arson and found the People’s case rested entirely on circumstantial evidence.

Two judges dissented and expressed that the jury’s verdict should not be overturned.  The precise origin of the fire was identified by a distinct “V” pattern, in a corner of the kitchen near the stove.  None of the appliances were at the base of the “V.”  One of the investigators did inspect – and ruled out – the appliances.  The breakers could have tripped due to heat from the fire.  Richardson was delinquent in his real property taxes, gas service to the house had been disconnected, and he had increased his fire insurance shortly before the fire.  Because Richardson elected to take the stand and testify, the jury had the opportunity to judge his demeanor and convicted him of arson.

Bottom Line:  While I disagree with this Court’s decision, it re-emphasizes the need for investigators to consider and thoroughly rule out (however unlikely) any and all possible causes of a fire in the area of origin pursuant to NFPA 921 (chapter 18).

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[1] People v. James Richardson, Third Judicial Department (October 2, 2008)
[2] An electrical expert did examine the space heater, electrical outlet, power strip and remains of several electrical wires.  However, the Court noted that this electrical expert completed his report “without the benefit of visiting the scene.”

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