Fatal ’93 blaze may have been accident, investigators say

By: Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: May 18th, 2015

At the time 14-year-old Adam Gray was arrested for setting a fire that killed two people, the evidence that the fire had been intentionally set seemed unassailable. After all, fire investigators testified that the March 1993 blaze at a Brighton Park neighborhood two-flat had the markings of an arson: shiny “alligator” charring on the wood porch stairs and deep burn patterns across the first-floor landing.

What’s more, Gray confessed to Chicago police that he had set the fire with gasoline, saying he was angry because he had been spurned by a girl who lived there.

But Gray, it turns out, was caught in a forensic time warp of sorts as police and fire investigators across the country were often slow to accept advances in fire science that called into question what had long been considered unmistakable evidence of arson.

Now, nearly two decades after his conviction, Gray hopes to win his freedom after Cook County prosecutors agreed to a hearing on his claim that the fire was not arson. Two of the nation’s leading fire scientists concluded that Chicago police and fire investigators relied on flawed theories to conclude the 1993 fire was intentionally set. The scientists contend the fire should have been ruled undetermined because no evidence of arson existed.

“There’s no expert who would say at this point in time that this fire was an arson. The evidence just isn’t there,” said Brij Patnaik, an attorney at the law firm of Jenner & Block and one of Gray’s lawyers. “Scientists no longer accept the evidence that was cited at Adam’s trial as evidence of an accelerant being used.”

The new rules for fire investigation, based on rigorous scientific study over several years, were compiled in a document titled, “NFPA 921,” and first issued in the year before the fire that sent Gray to prison. But in many jurisdictions, those rules were slow to take hold, as veteran investigators clung to what now are considered disproven theories. In some police and fire departments, investigators were openly hostile to the updated science.

Today, the new rules of fire investigation are widely accepted, leading to the overturning of arson-murder convictions across the nation. In perhaps the most high-profile case, a panel of fire scientists concluded that the evidence of arson that led to the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas was flawed and that the cause of the fire that killed his three young daughters should have been classified as undetermined.

Those findings came too late for Willingham, who was executed in 2004. That led Texas to do a comprehensive review of all its arson convictions to determine if others had been convicted based on faulty fire science.

However, authorities in Cook County as well as the Illinois state fire marshal’s office haven’t undertaken a similar, widespread search, according to officials.

But county prosecutors have agreed to the hearing for Gray, though no date has been set. Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said prosecutors “recognize that there have been advancements” in fire investigation and are open to reviewing other arson cases on which science has cast a new light.

But Daly said prosecutors stand by Gray’s conviction after their review of the evidence in his case.

“The state’s attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit has examined the facts in this arson-murder case, and at this time we have not identified evidence that would change our position as to the integrity of this conviction,” Daly said.

Gray was in eighth grade and had turned 14 two weeks before the fire in the 4100 block of South Albany Avenue. Prosecutors said Gray, angry over a break-up with a girlfriend, poured gasoline on the enclosed back porch of the second floor and on the stairs before igniting it. The former girlfriend and her parents, who lived on the first floor, escaped. But the second-floor tenants, Peter McGuinness, 54, and his sister, Margaret Mesa, 74, died.

Gray was taken into custody by police and, according to authorities, confessed to buying gas at a nearby gas station and setting the fire. Prosecutors also relied on the fire investigators and a gas station clerk who said Gray bought gasoline shortly before the fire. Prosecutors also said a milk jug found in the alley near the crime scene contained an accelerant.

Gray was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of aggravated arson at a trial in May 1996 As Judge James Flannery imposed on Gray life in prison without the possibility of parole, he called it “probably the saddest case I’ve seen.”

Gray, whose father still remains in prison for a murder that occurred before Gray was born, has essentially grown up behind bars — first at the juvenile detention center in Chicago, then Cook County Jail and, for the past 19 years, state prison. Now 36, he has close-cropped hair with a touch of red, a goatee and a steady gaze behind eyeglasses. He speaks with an urgency about developments in his case, but hints of the 14-year-old who went to jail remain.

He said he tries not to get too hopeful about his chances of being released, even with an appeal based on science.

“They’ll either accept this new evidence as science or they won’t — despite all the science that’s behind it,” he said in an interview at the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg, Ill. “I’d like to believe this will actually win the day here, but I’m up against a system that’s not always rooted in justice.”

Gray’s case began to turn some five years ago when his lawyers learned how the science behind fire investigation had changed over the past two decades. They turned to two of the nation’s leading fire scientists, Gerald Hurst and John Lentini. The Tribune had asked Hurst and Lentini to evaluate the arson evidence in the Willingham case when the Tribune investigated the conviction not long after Willingham was put to death by lethal injection.

Hurst, who has since died, determined that the investigation into the fire that sent Gray to prison was flawed in fundamental ways. He found that the original investigators not only relied on outdated indicators of arson — the alligator charring and deep burn patterns — but also failed to undertake the kind of investigation that would allow them to rule out accidental causes for the fire. Hurst concluded investigators “were operating under many of the misconceptions endemic to the field in the early 1990s,” according to a copy of his report contained in court records.

Lentini focused more on the conclusions reached by the original investigators about the use of an accelerant. He found that the substance in the milk jug did not match the substance in the fire debris and that neither was gasoline — a fact actually known early on but one that Gray’s lawyer did not make an issue of at trial. According to Lentini’s report, the substances found at the scene are known as petroleum distillates and include kerosene, but they are not effective accelerants. What’s more, they often are found in treated wood and were not available at the station where Gray was said to buy gas, according to his lawyers.

The advances in fire science raise questions about the validity of Gray’s confession. Gray said in the prison interview that he told detectives that he was asleep at a friend’s home when the fire broke out. The officers ignored his pleas of innocence, he said, and he eventually lost hope.

“They continued to push until they got the statement they wanted,” Gray said. “I couldn’t deal with them anymore.”

Officers fed him some details in the confession, Gray said. Other details “came right out of my imagination,” he said. “A lot of it was ad-libbing it.”

Cook County prosecutors have found confessions to be powerful evidence, even when obtained from juveniles — a group known to be susceptible to making false confessions. They have allowed confessions to outweigh seemingly scientific evidence — even DNA — in some instances.

Prosecutors, who met with Gray recently, declined to say what evidence gives them confidence in his conviction. But in court documents, they have pointed to his confession as well as witnesses who said they saw him run from the two-flat.

“They ultimately determined they didn’t want to let Mr. Gray go, and I can’t tell you why that is,” said Tara Thompson of the Loevy & Loevy law firm and another of Gray’s attorneys. “People’s testimony is one thing, but it’s subject to some level of subjectivity. Science tells the story.”

Gray got his GED in prison and said he had started taking college classes when funding was cut and lifers no longer were eligible. Now, a typical day includes listening to the radio, watching TV and writing or drawing.

He is frustrated with the delay in the scheduling of his hearing. Prosecutors agreed in October 2012 to a hearing, according to court records and Thompson.

“It’s just about killing time,” Gray said.