On October 31, the Pennsylvania Superior Court gave Daniel Dougherty what he has coveted: a new trial. For the third time. The defense and appellate courts agreed: Daniel Dougherty had two unfair trials.
The three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that Dougherty should get a new trial. They cited three crucial errors the Common Pleas Court trial judge made. He allowed:
- earlier testimony from a city fire investigator who was unable to testify at the 2016 retrial. This violates Dougherty’s right to face his accusers.
- graphic photography of Dougherty’s two sons who died in the fire. The photography was inflaming, sensational, and had no added value in understanding arson.
- testimony that Dougherty was a drunk who hit women while this alleged behaviour could not be tied to the crime on trial.
“We’re certainly pleased and gratified that the Superior Court righted the errors committed by this trial judge,” said defense counsel David Fryman, who has worked years with co-counsel Shannon Farmer to free Dougherty.”
I have written extensively about forensic arson detection. In this post, you can find 5 cases where accidental fire became arson and resulted in the wrongful conviction and in one case, the execution of innocent people.
On August 24, 1985, the night of the fire, Dougherty should have been at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. He skipped the meeting and instead went to a bar, where he got into a verbal argument with his then-girlfriend (not the mother of the two boys). He came home, made himself dinner and fell asleep on the sofa in his living room, according to his testimony at trial. He said he awoke to see the curtains in flames. His children were asleep upstairs.
He ran outside to get the neighbor’s garden hose, but the hose was too short. He tried to get water near the window of the house, but he was too late. Flames were already bursting from the house. The glass exploded, cut his arm and pushed him down. Next, he grabbed a wooden ladder. But the fire was too powerful. He testified it “blew him down.”
When firefighters arrived, Dougherty was frantic, screaming at police to save his children. His aggressive and erratic behavior worried police. Authorities shoved his face in the mud and took him away, court documents say. Dougherty testified he wanted to die at that moment.
Authorities sifted through the charred remnants of the home and determined the fire had been intentionally set. John Lentini and Angelo Pisani — two of the country’s most renowned arson investigators — have conducted thousands of fire scene inspections. Five years ago, they got involved in the Dougherty case.
Philadelphia Assistant Fire Marshal John Quinn, who led the first probe, relied on outdated arson investigation techniques. In his 1985 report, Quinn had determined three fires took place on the first floor of Dougherty’s brick home: one by the sofa, another by a love seat, and a third under the dining room table. Quinn concluded only a person could have set the fire in three separate places. Pisani and Lentini argue that the multiple burning spots were likely the result of a “flashover” — a naturally occurring phenomenon during a fire. In a flashover, the enclosed room can get very hot, reaching temperatures as high as 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The room eventually combusts, resulting in various burning points. Pisani and Lentini also reported the origin of the fire could not be determined because of extensive damage to the room.
I will be following this third trial and post updates (trial dates, etc.) as it unfolds.