AP Legal Affairs Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) – A death row inmate’s theory that a mysterious “man in red” could have started the arson fire that killed his 3-year-old son is “an extraordinary stretch of the imagination,” the state parole board ruled Wednesday in unanimously rejecting his plea for mercy.
Michael Webb doesn’t dispute the 1990 blaze was arson, but he denies starting it and says investigators using now-discredited methods came to the wrong conclusion about where in the house the flames broke out. He says the correct determination points to someone else as the culprit.
Investigators say Webb set the fire to kill his family, collect the insurance and start a new life with his mistress.
The Webb case is one in a series of cases around the U.S. that represents a new legal frontier: Defense attorneys in Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states are using advances in the science of fire investigation to challenge arson convictions, in much the same way they are employing DNA to clear those in prison for murder and rape.
The board called Webb’s theory of an alternate suspect who could have entered the house undetected “an extraordinary stretch of the imagination.”
“Given the overwhelming evidence of guilt, there is no manifest injustice in this case that would warrant the grant of executive clemency,” the board said.
Clermont County prosecutor Don White said Wednesday that he wasn’t surprised because he always thought Webb’s claim was meritless. Messages left with Webb’s attorney weren’t immediately returned.
Gov. John Kasich has the final say on clemency for Webb, whose execution is on hold because of an unrelated lawsuit over lethal injection.
Research in recent decades has challenged long-held assumptions about how flames spread and the tell-tale signs they leave.
“Our scientific understandings have improved in recent years, and the effect of that has to be to say, `We’ve got some innocent people who’ve been declared guilty based on misunderstandings,'” said John Hall, director of analysis and research for the National Fire Protection Association.
For example, decades ago, it was common for investigators to conclude an accelerant like gasoline was used if a fire burned particularly hot. In fact, the new arson science has found no such correlation, experts say. Another mistaken assumption: A V-shaped pattern on a wall of a burned building is proof of arson. All it shows is where a fire started.
In Ohio, Webb’s chief argument is that a fire investigator wrongly concluded that the 1990 blaze started near a closet or a bathroom where Webb acknowledged he was standing.
In a report submitted on Webb’s behalf earlier this month, Gerald Hurst, a chemist and fire investigator in Austin, Texas, said that based on gasoline-spill experiments conducted around the U.S. in the years since the crime, the origin of the fire could have been anywhere on the main floor.
That is important to Webb’s case because of statements by one of his teenage daughters that she saw “a man in red” in the house the morning of the fire. Webb’s attorneys argue that that person could have been the boyfriend of Webb’s other daughter.
Webb’s lawyers acknowledge Hurst’s findings don’t exonerate Webb, but say they raise enough questions to justify a new trial.
Prosecutors dismiss the “man in red” theory, saying the girl’s statements varied, that no evidence implicating the boyfriend was found, and that the daughter could have actually seen Webb holding a red gas can. They say Webb is presenting nothing new.
Webb is making “a contention of innocence that is refuted by the hard evidence in the case,” Clermont County prosecutors said in their filing with the parole board.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached at
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