From the jump, the case against Daniel Dougherty is a strange one. One early morning in the summer of 1985, the 6’4″ repairman’s Philadelphia row house caught fire, killing his two young sons sleeping upstairs. Dougherty claimed that he had been asleep on the living room couch when the fire ignited, and upon waking, immediately ran outside to grab a neighbor’s garden hose, intent on putting out the fire and saving his boys. It was too late – both Daniel, 4, and John, 3, died from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.
When police arrived, they immediately zeroed in on Dougherty as their prime suspect. He had apparently gotten into fights with both his girlfriend and his ex-wife that night, and skipped an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. One police officer said that when he blocked Dougherty from charging into the burning building, the panicked father said, “My name is mud and I should die for what I did.” Later, Dougherty waived his Miranda rights, telling police he had nothing to hide, and unable to dig up any compelling evidence, they let him go.
Fourteen years later, he was charged in their deaths, after his estranged second wife, with whom he was engaged in a contentious custody battle over a third child born after the fire, called police and said he had confessed to murdering Daniel and John. He was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to death, largely based on dubious expert testimony claiming the fire was arson. Dougherty has never waivered in maintaining his innocence.
In 2012, an appellate court found that Dougherty’s trial lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to question the State’s scientific conclusions about the cause of the fire. If they had called a fire expert to testify, the court decided, the jury “would have had reasonable doubt about [Dougherty’s] guilt and would have been compelled to acquit him.” Dougherty, now 56, had his conviction vacated and was granted a new trial, which began earlier this week in Philadelphia.
Dougherty’s defense counsel intends to show that the State used flawed and since-disproven forensic evidence to convict him, just as this same junk science has led to other false convictions. According to The Daily Beast, back in 1985:
Philadelphia Assistant Fire Marshal John Quinn concluded the fire had three points of origin inside the house, based on burn marks, and therefore was intentional—information Dougherty’s attorney never challenged. …
Quinn declared the blaze started in three places: a loveseat, a sofa, and a spot beneath a dining-room table. He also testified that Dougherty’s claims that he tried to save the kids weren’t believable, as his body showed no exposure to flames or smoke, the Inquirer reported.
However, renowned arson investigator John Lentini, who is expected to testify at Dougherty’s retrial, wrote in report submitted to the court, “Lt. Quinn’s conclusion that the fire was intentionally set has no scientific basis, then or now.” The Daily Beast explains:
Lentini and other experts who’ve reviewed Dougherty’s case say the three burning spots are likely the result of “flashover,” a naturally occurring phenomenon where rising heat collects at the ceiling until the temperature reaches 1,100 degrees and the room combusts. Flashovers can create burn marks such as those seen in Dougherty’s home.
“Unfortunately, it is not possible given the level of destruction and documentation, to determine where exactly this fire started or how it started,” Lentini wrote in a post-conviction report. “What I can state with certainty is that the evidence does not support a determination of three points of origin, which was the sole basis for Lt. Quinn’s determination that the fire was intentionally set.”
However, the State has only doubled down on their expert testimony. According to the Inquirer, during opening arguments earlier this week, Philadelphia assistant district attorney Jude Conroy said evidence, including Lt. Quinn’s original findings, would show Dougherty was guilty, beyond all doubt.
Dougherty’s case is eerily reminiscent of the incredibly tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas father who was convicted of killing his three young children by arson at the family home in 1991 and sent to death row. In early-2004, fire and arson investigator Gerald Hurst prepared a report which discredited each piece of the State’s arson evidence, submitting his conclusion that there was “no evidence of arson” along with Willingham’s appeal for clemency. Both Governor Rick Perry and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored Willingham’s appeal, and he was executed in February 2004.
Since then, major questions have been raised about the entirety of the police and prosecutor’s investigation into Willingham. In 2009, another report, this one prepared by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, also concluded that “a finding of arson could not be sustained,” and that the fire marshal’s testimony at Willingham’s trial was “hardly consistent with a scientific mind-set and is more characteristic of mystics or psychics.”
Willingham has been dead for 12 years, and the evidence used to convict and execute him has been utterly discredited by experts in the field. Yet, as is apparent in the Philadelphia DA’s continued pursuit of a conviction against Dougherty, there is still a serious lesson to be learned.
“The myths are slowly dying out,” Lentini wrote in his report to the court, “but there are still practitioners who use them today, with disastrous consequences.”
Photo: Police Handout