A man convicted as a teenager of double-murder and arson and sentenced to life without parole was denied a new trial this week despite both prosecutors and his attorneys' request that the case be retried due to the debunked fire science used against him.
Adam Gray was arrested in 1993 at age 14 and accused of setting his ex-girlfriend's house on the Southside of Chicago on fire. Two elderly people living on the second floor died in the blaze.
Three years later, he was tried as an adult and found guilty of double-murder — a charge that, at the time, carried an automatic sentence of life without parole even though the17-year-old was still technically a juvenile.
Gray, now 39, has always professed his innocence, saying the confession he gave the day of the fire was coerced by police who interrogated him for hours without a lawyer or his parents present.
Earlier this year, Gray's defense team and prosecutors for the State of Illinois agreed that he should get a new trial because of emerging science that suggests detectives ruled the fire an arson based on investigative techniques that have been thoroughly discredited over the years.
Prosecutors from the Cook County conviction integrity unit wrote in a motion in June — joining Gray's request for a new trial — that arson investigators who testified against him in 1996 relied on "abandoned theories" in the field. Furthermore, the prosecution added that the fire science used to convict Gray has become "partially invalidated" in the years since his conviction.
At the June hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Celeste Stack said on the new fire science evidence, “I think it is enough to go forward" with a new trial, adding, "I think that Mr. Gray will be convicted a second time around."
But Judge Angela Petrone did not agree.
Petrone ruled Monday that evidence submitted to her "failed to present conclusive evidence of his actual innocence, or any evidence that is of such conclusive nature that it would probably change the result at retrial."
Instead, Petrone ruled that Gray was entitled to re-sentencing under the Supreme Court's decision that automatic sentences of life in prison without parole for juveniles are unconstitutional.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News in earlier 2016, Gray recounted the life-altering events of March 25, 1993 and the years spent fighting his conviction.
The night of the fire, Gray’s ex-girlfriend, Kasey Paris, told police at the scene that Gray threatened her for months because she had started dating his best friend.
After he was taken into custody, Gray told police that he spent the night at the house of his his best friend, Mel Gonzales.
But police were convinced that Gray left Gonzales' house, went to a nearby gas station, filled up a milk jug with gasoline, then went to the house where Paris lived and set the back stairs on fire. After hours of interrogation, Gray eventually agreed to confess and signed a transcript with this narrative of the incident.
At trial, his confession was read into evidence. Paris testified against him, claiming that the day before the fire Gray had told her to watch her back.
But when police presented their evidence, two investigators testified that they found no gasoline in the debris — calling into question the state’s theory that Gray set the fire with a milk jug filled with gas.
Despite the lack of gasoline at the scene, investigators said that they ruled the case an arson based largely on finding charred wood with shiny, scaly blisters — commonly referred to as “alligator charring” — at the scene. This was proof, they said, that an accelerant was used. That, along with this confession and other testimony, was enough to convict Gray.
Gray’s efforts to appeal his case proved hopeless for years. Then in 2010, attorneys from Chicago-based firm Jenner & Block took up his case and brought in three leading experts in the field of fire science: John Lentini, Denny Smith, and Gerald Hurst.
They examined dozens of photographs, chemical tests from the debris and milk jug, police reports, and testimony from the trial. Hurst said during his deposition that he put in 100 to 200 hours looking at the photos alone.
In a report, the experts said that the claim that a liquid accelerant was present based on alligator charring was “speculative and not supported by any evidence or scientific research.” Smith wrote that after investigators failed to find gasoline at the scene, they relied on an “absence of evidence” and the elimination of other accidental causes, such as electrical. He called the methodology “unacceptable, unethical, and improper.”
Debris inside the house showing "alligator charring"
On Smith's report, Petrone wrote: "It is not of such conclusive character that it would probably change the result upon a retrial, especially when compared to all the other evidence in this case."
The judge wrote that Smith and the other experts' critique of the fire investigators "at best" impeaches them as witnesses.
"However, proof of actual innocence is not satisfied with impeachment," the judge wrote. "Evidence which merely has the effect of impeaching, discrediting or contradicting a witness does not afford a basis for a new trial."
The judge went on to say that evidence shows Gray had motive to kill Paris, who he was clearly angry and jealous of, calling her his unrequited love.
On the argument that his confession was coerced, she says that this theory was available to him at the time of his first trial and therefore did not merit re-trying the case.
Petrone also concluded that the affidavits of several witnesses recanting their testimony — including one from Paris stating she “had no factual knowledge to support the accusation and repeated coercion from the police” that led her to implicate Gray — were unreliable.
"Both the prosecutors and we agree that Mr. Gray was convicted of arson on the basis of evidence which arson experts now know was unscientific and unreliable. The prosecutors agree that Mr. Gray should be given a new trial," Terri Mascherin, the attorney for Gray, told BuzzFeed News on Monday after learning Petrone's decision.
"We believe the judge misapplied the law in denying the joint request for a new trial, and we are considering the possible options for appealing her decision."