Two more men were exonerated last week, long after they’d been convicted of serious crimes. Between them, they served about 75 years in prison. First up is Joseph Sledge in North Carolina.
Last week’s other exoneree is James Hugney Sr., who spent more than 35 years in prison due to junk science testimony about arson.
According to a release from The McShane Firm, James Hugney, Sr. was released from prison Friday after spending 35 years, 11 months and eight days in prison. Hugney was convicted in July 1979 after a jury found him guilty of setting a fire at his Susquehanna Township home that caused the death of [his] 16-year-old son. The fire was Aug. 20, 1978 at Hugney’s home at 1625 Bamberger Road.The case at the time was called the “burning bed” case. Investigators said Hugney poured lighter fluid around the bed of his son, James Hugney, Jr., while the boy was sleeping. Hugney then set the house on fire, causing his son to suffer burns on 98 percent of his body, investigators testified at the time. Hugney, Jr., died five days after the fire.As part of Hugney’s release, he made an Alfred Plea to third degree murder in the case. As part of the plea, he continued to maintain he was not guilty. An Alfred Plea is a type of deal reached with existing prosecutors that allows a person convicted of a crime to be released from prison on the agreed to charges and given credit for time served.At trial, three prosecution experts testified Hugney’s actions were arson because of the “characteristic pour patterns around the bed” of his son. Prosecution testimony also relied on analysis of charred parts of the bedroom which “were characteristic of hydrocarbons.” . . .“The pivotal scientific evidence of negative corpus had been debunked,” McShane said in a news release. “All of the scientific evidence used in the case was based on popularly held beliefs and myths of the time that modern science has totally refuted.” Through the retention of three internationally known fire scientists, their analysis of the methods used in the Hugney conviction were shown to not stand with modern science. In their reports filed with the court, the three investigators could [not] conclude that the fire was an arson using modern practices for fire science.
Pennsylvania is one of the states that has no compensation law at all. But Hugney’s Alford plea would have prevented him from collecting even in states that do. But the Alford plea was probably the best he was going to get. If these courts and prosecutors were truly interested in justice, they’d release and exonerate anyone convicted solely on expert testimony that is later proven to be scientifically invalid. In reality, once you’ve been convicted, the burden is then on you to prove your innocence.
It’s frightening how often these cases turn on chance. If you were “lucky” enough to have been wrongly convicted in a case involving DNA before the onset of DNA testing, you might have a shot at fully clearing your name. But if you were convicted in a crime where DNA wasn’t a factor, or a case like this one where the question is whether a crime was committed at all, you have a much tougher road to freedom. And you’ll probably never be completely cleared, much less compensated.
Related: My argument for why we should have bifurcated trials in cases such as Hugney’s, in which the jury is asked to decide not only who committed the crime, but also whether a crime was committed at all.