Arson Death Penalty Case Built on Dubious Science

Still, all the rumors and gossip would mean nothing if there hadn't been evidence that Kelley had set the fire. That evidence started with spalling, but later the case would hinge on prosecution expert John DeHaan, Ph.D., who argued that the fire "was deliberately started in at least two, if not three places."

DeHaan thought the "rapid spread of the fire" signaled that either an "accelerant" was used or "multiple fires" had been started. Either way, DeHaan believed, it was arson.

"It was deliberately started," DeHaan told ABC he concluded at the time. "It was not an accidental fire."

But Lentini sharply disagreed.

"That's just wrong," he said. "It's the most egregious misstatement of science that I've seen in my 30-something years of doing this."

Two nationally-recognized fire experts were drawing two dramatically different conclusions about what happened at Kelley's house.

"There's a huge element of interpretation," said Lentini. "It's all about interpretation. In fact all of forensic science is about interpreting circumstantial evidence... [A] jury can't understand what it means, which is why you need an expert to interpret that evidence for the jury."

Defense attorney Mike Small said the evidence against Amanda Kelley was thin for a capital murder trial.

"In many death penalty cases, the evidence of guilt is overwhelming," Small said. "Amanda turns that model on its head."

For four years, between her indictment and her release on bail, Kelley remained imprisoned on the fifth floor of the Alexandria jail.

Arson: New Prosecutor Reviews Case

Finally, with the original charges thrown out on a procedural issue, prosecutor Mike Shannon took over the case in 2008. Considering possibly starting a new round of arson and murder charges, he decided to review all the evidence, including DeHaan's arson conclusion.

Shannon called DeHaan.

"He said, 'Well, you know I've done other tests. And I can't really go with my original conclusion,'" said Shannon.

"I said... 'What?'"

DeHaan now says that, based on new science and a review of the testimony, he can no longer claim with "scientific certainty" that Kelley's fire was intentionally set.

"He in effect says, 'Everything I said earlier about this fire being intentionally set ... disregard, because it cannot be scientifically supported,'" Small said. "He's essentially saying what our experts had been saying from day one."

Arson: 'Thank God We Didn't Get to That Point'

We asked DeHaan why, when he made the decision that his original conclusion of arson fire might be wrong, he didn't call the prosecutor in the Kelley case.

"Well, because I was unaware of what was going on, this case had been under judicial review for years," DeHaan said. "I respond to the requests of my clients. I don't just invent reasons to go off and create new materials...."

We asked DeHaan if he didn't think that a death penalty case required maybe a higher degree of vigilance on his part.

"All cases deserve my vigilance," he said.

We noted that, had Kelley's case gone to trial, she could have been executed on bad science.

"That is possible, yes," DeHaan said.

Shannon, the prosecutor, said a death sentence in the Kelley case based on bad science had been "certainly a possibility."

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