Arson Death Penalty Case Built on Dubious Science

PHOTO Amanda Kelley is shown with her three children, Sadii, Jessica and Luke in this file photo.

The street names in Sherwood Forest, a subdivision outside Alexandria, Louisiana, are from the legend of Robin Hood. But the story that played out nearly 10 years ago in one of the homes on Friar Tuck Lane is more like a tale from the Brothers Grimm.

Amanda Kelley had three children: Sadii, 10; Luke, 6; and Jessica, 3. On a winter's day in 2001, she left them briefly to run an errand.

She said that she had left them alone before, "but not for long." This time, she said, she was gone about 15 to 20 minutes.

VIDEO: Arson conviction sent mom to prison 14 years ago. Now she may go free.
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They were 20 minutes that changed everything. When Kelley drove back up to the house, she saw fire.

"Flames around my bedroom window," she told ABC News. "I ran into the house, I felt my way down the hall, it was so black -- you couldn't see a hand in front of your face. ... [I] tried to get up the stairs, to where they should've been to get dressed -- that's where their rooms were and I couldn't make it up the stairs."

VIDEO: Thermal imagers records temperatures in a room when it catches fire.
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Neither Kelley nor the firefighters could save the children.

Kelley still has one of their blankets.

"For the first few weeks after they died, I wore it around my neck, and I just would rub it," Kelley said. "And I had someone tell me it was unhealthy and I needed to take it off, [that] it smells like smoke."

But the smoke at the scene of the fire hadn't even cleared when detective Bobby Sandoval of the Rapides Parish Sheriff's Department smelled a crime. In an interview with ABC News, Sandoval said he had suspicions "within the first five minutes."

'Spalling' of Concrete Seen as Evidence of Arson

Sandoval's suspicion was initially based, he said, on Kelley's behavior the afternoon of the fire.

"When I talked to her, I didn't see any emotions as far as crying or anything like that," he said. "She didn't have no burns, she didn't have nothing. ... I mean she just didn't have any signs of any person you would think that went into a boiling black smoke house like she claimed."

But an arson charge requires more than curious behavior; fire investigators want proof. And in this case they claimed to have found it.

After the fire was out, investigators examined the charred cement slab upon which the house had stood. It was pockmarked and pitted. The effect is called "spalling," and investigators believed it was a sign that an accelerant such as gasoline has been used to start the fire.

There was further apparent evidence of arson.

"They tested the soil," said Sandoval. "It tested positive for gasoline, and there was no reason for that gasoline to be there. ... Now we have a crime."

The authorities accused Kelley of burning her children alive. The crime -- arson murder -- can carry a death sentence.

"There's nothing more horrific than that," said Sandoval.

For nine hours in an interview just days after the fire, Sandoval pressed Kelley for a confession, as her father sat beside her. An audio tape of the interrogation captures Sandoval asserting that the children had been murdered.

"My babies were not murdered, Daddy," Kelley replies in the tape. "I did not do this, Daddy ... I did not do this, OK? This is insanity. I don't understand. ... May God put me in hell for eternity if I burned those babies. I didn't do it, Daddy. I didn't."

But the interrogation turned even darker. Sandoval accused Kelley of dousing her children in gasoline.

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