For the second time this month, the Davidson County District Attorney's Office's Conviction Review Unit has disavowed a conviction obtained by Nashville prosecutors decades ago.
In a filing in the Criminal Court of Davidson County today, the DA Glenn Funk declared his support for a petition from the Tennessee Innocence Project on behalf of Claude Garrett, asking the court to vacate Garrett's 1993 murder conviction. The filing comes less than two weeks after the office disavowed a Nashville couple's 1987 conviction for child rape and murder.
Garrett is serving a life sentence for the death of his then-girlfriend, Lorie Lee Lance, who died of smoke inhalation after the couple's Old Hickory-area house caught fire in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 1992. Prosecutors, citing the conclusions of fire investigators, made the case to a jury that Garrett had locked his girlfriend in a utility room and doused the area in kerosene before lighting the fire himself. But Garrett always maintained his innocence. And nearly 30 years later, the DA's office says it's no longer confident that he's guilty.
"While the CRU's review of the case did not find affirmative evidence conclusively establishing Garrett's innocence, the CRU finds it wholly impossible to maintain confidence in Garrett’s conviction," CRU director Sunny Eaton writes in the report. "Holistic review of the record, the District Attorney’s file, and new scientific evidence dismantles every single piece of evidence previously believed to inculcate Garrett."
Garrett's case was first brought to light by Nashville-based Intercept reporter Liliana Segura, who wrote the first of several articles in 2015 detailing how junk arson science was used to secure Garrett's conviction. The Garrett prosecution was led by then-Assistant District Attorney John Zimmermann, the same prosecutor who led the problematic case against Abu-Ali Abdur'Rahman (the latter of which led to Abdur'Rahman's death sentence being vacated earlier this month).
The CRU report notes alternative theories put forward by fire experts who reviewed the case, including one suggesting the fire started accidentally from a discarded cigarette near a love seat in the house. Although the report stops short of declaring Garrett innocent, it states unequivocally that his conviction was based on "demonstrably unreliable testimony, faulty investigative methods, and baseless speculation." Stripped of all that, the report says, "the case against Garrett is nonexistent."
The use of circumstantial evidence by aggressive prosecutors — Garrett had a drinking problem, a hot temper and a number of tattoos — is commonplace in wrongful conviction stories. But what's particularly alarming in Garrett's case is the use of since-debunked "science," the kind of expert analysis that was relied upon for scores of convictions in similar cases. In her story, Segura writes about the parallels between Garrett's case and that of Todd Cameron Willingham, the almost certainly innocent man executed by the state of Texas in 2004. Both cases, she writes, relied heavily on "longstanding fallacies" about house fires.
One such fallacy, highlighted by Segura in her reporting and now by the CRU, involves what were known as "pour patterns," seemingly irregular markings that investigators wrongly believed indicated that an accelerant had been poured in the area. Garrett's conviction, the CRU report says, relied heavily on investigators' testimony about the pour patterns they found in the house.
From the report: "Since that time, fire science has developed considerably, and reviewing experts are consistent as to the most probative scientific issues in this case: primarily, that this fire progressed to a state of 'flashover' and that this was not adequately considered by the fire investigators analyzing the scene in 1992. This was not possible for investigators because the now-widespread scientific understanding of flashover and its impact on pour pattern identification was not well researched in 1992 and only at the cusp of acceptance by the fire science community."
Citing modern fire experts, Segura helpfully explains "flashover" as the moment "a fire in a room becomes a room on fire."
Jurors in 1993 — and another jury that convicted him again in 2003 — were not "armed with enough reliable testimony or meaningful data to answer the question posed to them," the CRU report says.
"Interpreted in light of new scientific advances and guided by the professional analysis of ten experts who have reviewed the evidence in this case, there is no basis whatsoever to believe that an incendiary act by Garrett caused this fire any more than a hypothesis suggesting an accidental cause."
Based on that finding, the DA's office expresses its support for the petition from the Tennessee Innocence Project, arguing that Garrett is actually innocent and should have his conviction vacated.
You can read both filings here: