Houman Fakhimi

Innocence of California Arson Convict Proven After 16 Years Behind Bars

The evidence and testimony used to convict a California man of involuntary manslaughter connected to triple-murder arson some 16 years ago has now been proven faulty, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times.

San Bernardino Criminal Defense Lawyer Houman Fakhimi understand the case started with an immense tragedy. A mother and her two young children, ages 8 and 3, were killed in a house fire in their rented home in Modesto.

Evidence seemed to overwhelmingly point to the defendant. Investigators had determined the fire had been deliberately set. The defendant, the mother's landlord, was in the process of evicting her. A witness said she had seen the defendant at the scene just minutes before flames engulfed the structure. Forensic investigators even reportedly found evidence of a flammable substance on the defendant's shoe, which allegedly matched the same flammable substance found at the scene.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty. The first jury was hung, but the second convicted him and he was ultimately sentenced to life in prison without parole.

But three years ago, the evidence used to convict the defendant began to unravel, starting with new scientific revelations that proved earlier assumptions false.

For many years, those who studied and investigated fire and deliberately-set fires believed that when a fire was started by arson using an accelerant, there would be certain signs. Those could include melted steel or glass etched by tiny cracks, markings or patterns.

But in the years since this man's conviction, that theory has been more thoroughly tested - and disproven. Those same kinds of markings could be found in blazes that were started accidentally too. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association published a report that dispelled this earlier theory. Still, it was many years before this conclusion was actually embraced by the fire investigation community at-large. There are some even today who still cling to those earlier beliefs.

In 2004, a Texas man was executed for the arson deaths of three children in a blaze that fire investigators now believe was almost certainly accidental.

Cases like this have prompted various Innocence Project factions to take on review of some of these old arson cases - this one out of Modesto being one.

Based on the strength of the supposition that the previous fire investigator's evidence was flawed, the courts offered the defendant a new trial. The courts had also pointed to the fact that the prosecution's key witness, the neighbor who had reportedly seen the defendant moments before the fire, was facing criminal charges herself on unrelated matters. She was given a break on those charges in exchange for her testimony. This was not revealed at trial, though it called into question her reliability.

Fire investigators now believe the fire occurred when a stove top was left on while the victims slept.

Rather than risk that and the possibility of years of appeals, the defendant pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for failure to ensure there were working smoke detectors inside the residence. He is expected to soon walk out of prison a free man.

This case illustrates why all evidence must be carefully weighed and thoroughly questioned. It's also an example of why science can't always be trusted to provide infallible proof of one's guilt, and as such should always be approached with a critical eye.

Contact Houman Fakhimi trial attorney at (714) 705-6701 as soon as possible if you are arrested in San Bernardino.

Additional Resources

Arson convict proves his innocence after 16 years behind bars, July 3, 2012, By Maura Dolan, The Los Angeles Times.