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Texas judge to examine old arson case amid statewide review

January 11, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

HOUSTON -- A Texas judge is expected to consider Friday whether to grant a new trial for a man serving a life sentence for murdering his two stepsons by arson, or even to declare him innocent.

Ed Graf, 60, was convicted in 1988 of locking his 8- and 9-year-old stepsons in a backyard storage shed in Hewitt, Texas, just outside Waco, and setting the shed afire.

Graf’s is among a handful of arson cases under review by the Lubbock-based Innocence Project of Texas and an expert state fire panel, an unprecedented investigation of closed cases recommended by the state’s Forensic Science Commission. The expert panel includes the leader of the science commission.

Innocence Project officials hope the review will help overturn wrongful convictions that relied on so-called “junk science,” discredited approaches of determining whether fires were intentionally set.

Earlier this week, the officials brought their findings to the fire panel assembled by Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy in Houston.

The panel convened after a report last year by the Forensic Science Commission found that unreliable science helped lead to Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction for murder by arson in 1992. Willingham, 24, had been convicted in the deaths of his three children in a 1991 fire at their home in Corsicana, about 55 miles south of Dallas, and was executed in 2004.

Last year’s science commission report did not draw conclusions about Willingham's guilt, instead recommending the arson review currently underway.

Innocence Project staff found about 30 problematic arson cases they want to investigate, and brought them to the six-member state fire panel when it met for the first time Tuesday.

One case involved weak evidence about how a house fire started. Another concerned questionable arson evidence from a fire in the 1980s in Pasadena, about 15 miles east of Houston. The person convicted in the latter case is serving a 75-year sentence.

Connealy, a former fire chief working in the field since 1978, said the expert panel reviewed five questionable cases, including Graf’s. He declined to identify the other cases, since he said the panel had yet to notify the officials who originally handled them.

He said the group planned to contact local officials, gather more information about the cases at least 30 days before their next meeting in April, then draft reports of their findings in time for their next meeting in June.

Those reports would be sent to local district attorneys,  who have the option of reopening the cases. But, Connealy noted, “We can’t compel anything.”

“We’re just trying to make sure justice is served,” Connealy said. “What’s happening here isn’t just in Texas, it’s all across the United States. We need to make sure what we’re doing is indeed supported by up-to-date science.” 

In Graf’s case, after the inmate filed to have the case reopened, Connealy said the McLennan County District Attorney’s office “reached out to us to get an expert to assist them in their review,” eventually working with the state fire marshal’s former chief investigator, Tommy Sing.

Sing attended the fire panel meeting in Houston and discussed the case, as did a panel member who reviewed the case in 2010, Connealy said. “So we had some broad background, but there are some additional things the forensic science commission would like provided” before they issue their findings, he said. 

Graf’s evidentiary hearing before retired Judge George Allen, who originally heard his case, is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Friday. Having exhausted his appeals, Graf has requested that the judge call for a new trial or issue a finding of actual innocence.

The judge will review Graf’s conviction and hear witnesses. Then he will make findings and a recommendation to the state’s court of criminal appeals, which will make the final decision.

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