Since the day he was accused of setting fire to his Roanoke home and killing his two young children in 1987, Davey Reedy has proclaimed his innocence.
“I know with all my heart and all my belief on my children’s grave, before it is all over with I will prove my innocence — if I survive,” Reedy told the court before his sentencing.
This week he was finally vindicated by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who granted Reedy a rare absolute pardon six years after his release from prison.
The governor said he was convinced that the jury relied on flawed forensic analysis about the fire when they decided Reedy caused the deaths of his 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. Reedy’s case is among several nationwide in which older methods of determining whether a fire was arson have been discredited or called into question.
Reedy’s prison warden was the first to wonder if he was telling the truth about the early-morning fire. A psychiatrist who saw him before the trial and a prison psychologist who saw him after his trial also came to question the conviction.
Then, in 1999 a Roanoke Times article, “Did Davey Reedy Really Do It?”, caught the eye of a former public defender. Roberta Bondurant shouldered Reedy’s appeals for 10 years, much of it pro bono, until she felt her efforts had been exhausted. It was about when her husband, former federal prosecutor Thomas Bondurant, was leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office for private practice. Eventually, he was able to get a parole investigator, Trudy Harris, to have the Division of Forensic Science send the initial arson findings to a board of three experts. They agreed: The analysis was incorrect.
“It’s pretty remarkable how one person after another stepped up to help Mr. Reedy,” Roberta Bondurant said.
In early appeals, Bondurant emphasized the possibility that Reedy’s ex-wife set the fire, as well as other explanations for gasoline that authorities said was found on his shirt. But Bondurant said she was always suspicious of the forensic testimony as well.
“A lay person could see that it wasn’t scientific,” she said. She had marshaled the help of investigators from Combustion Science & Engineering, who alerted fire expert John Lentini.
Eventually, challenging the arson finding became the focus of the case.
“People tend not to challenge the forensic science because they believe ‘Oh this is chemistry, it’s infallible,’ ” said Lentini, who runs a private fire investigation business in Florida. “But we know that it’s just not true.”
There was no proof of gasoline on Reedy’s shirt or the home’s floor, Lentini found, and the state ultimately agreed. The minimum characteristics needed to make that finding, he said, simply weren’t there. Burn patterns that initial investigators claimed showed signs of arson were, he said, based on old misconceptions about how fire works as well as how houses are made. For example, burning plastic gives off the same chemicals as gasoline, and wood products often contain petroleum. Natural flames can cause spontaneous combustion called “flashover,” long thought to be a sign of an intentional fire.
“The old fire science was like . . . reading tea leaves,” Thomas Bondurant said, “old wives tales about how things burn.”
The case is one of 56 arson convictions Lentini has been involved in fighting. Another was a 1980 Brooklyn townhouse fire whose alleged instigators were exonerated last week. One died in prison; the other two served for decades for deaths that officials now say were likely accidental.
Before the 1990s, many gasoline assessments were made by chemists untrained in fire science, Lentini said. A 1980 “Fire Investigation Handbook” produced by the National Bureau of Standards actually spread myths about reading fire patterns. A 1992 guide published by the National Fire Protection Association debunked many of those myths, but it has taken years for officials to accept that change.
Lentini estimates that about a couple of hundred people are imprisoned because of bad arson science. The number is based on the results of a statewide review done by Texas in response to the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who Lentini and many other fire experts believe was executed based on inaccurate arson forensics. Working with the Innocence Project, the State Fire Marshal’s Office surveyed all 1,085 arson convictions in Texas and found eight that should be reexamined.
“Things are improving,” Lentini said, but “there are more cases that need to be challenged.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 38 people have been exonerated before Reedy for arson-related crimes since 1991.
The prosecutors who tried Reedy are still convinced they made the right call, and they’re upset that McAuliffe did not consult with them about the pardon.
“That case would have been tried with or without the arson evidence, and I feel confident that we would have had a conviction,” said Roanoke Commonwealth’s Attorney Don Caldwell. He pointed to Reedy’s behavior before and after the fire, which included tying closed the door of one child’s bedroom and initially telling investigators there was no one else in the house.
Defenders for Reedy say his actions can be easily explained; he was trying to keep the child from walking out and falling down the stairs, and after the fire he was addled by severe carbon monoxide poisoning. As for his fights with his girlfriend and ex-wife that prosecutors found suspicious, they say such history would mean next to nothing without the gasoline findings.
Still, Caldwell and fellow prosecutor Joel Branscom, now the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Botetourt County, maintain Reedy was rightfully found guilty.
“I understand that the science has changed; I’m just disappointed that this decision was made without consulting the people who were actually there,” Branscom said.
Reedy, now 61, spent more than two decades in prison. He has not commented to the media. After his release in 2009, he has settled back in the Roanoke area with his family. The day McAuliffe called to tell him of his exoneration, Roberta Bondurant said, he was coordinating a volunteer project.
“He’s at a place and time in his life where he’s at peace with himself,” she said. “It doesn’t help him at all in the time he has left on this planet to hold bitterness for anyone who made a mistake along the way.”