Judge rules appeal in Jeannette murder, arson case filed decades late

·2 min read

Aug. 5—A Jeannette man serving three consecutive life sentences for setting the 1993 fire to his home that killed his wife and two children was decades late in filing his appeal, a Westmoreland County judge ruled.

James Young, now 55, claims his conviction on three counts of first-degree murder was based on junk science related to arson investigations and as a result, wants a new trial.

Young appeared for three days of hearings last October before Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Feliciani as his lawyers argued new evidence warranted the convictions be overturned.

The defense claims outdated fire investigation standards were used in the initial probe of the fatal blaze at Young's 14th Street home in which his 26-year-old wife, Gina Marie, his stepson, Shaun Holden, 3, and Joshua, the couple's 7-month-old baby, were killed.

Defense lawyers with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project say Young didn't become aware of the new standards until 2017, when he filed his latest appeal.

The judge did not rule on the merits of the Young's appeal and instead dismissed the challenge, saying it should have been filed before 2002 as part of a previous unsuccessful attempt to invalidate the convictions.

Defense attorney Elizabeth DeLosa did not respond to a request for comment.

Young admitted to police he and his wife were having marital problems at the time of the fire and he was immediately considered a suspect. According to evidence at the trial, investigators found gasoline cans outside the house and traces of fuel soaked into the diaper of Young's infant son. Arson investigators testified during trial that the pattern of burns in the house suggested the blaze was intentionally set and that arson dogs detected evidence that an accelerant was used.

Meanwhile, witnesses testified they saw Young walk on the roof of the house as it burned, and he refused to rescue his family as his wife pleaded for help from an upstairs window.

The defense argued that Young's current appeal is valid because a recent revision of fire investigation standards was adopted in early 2021 by the National Fire Protection Association. It debunked prior investigatory practices that limit how dogs are used in the early stages of fire investigations and downplayed the use of burn patterns to determine if a blaze was intentionally set.

Feliciani sided with prosecutors who argued those standards were essentially unchanged since 1995 and were originally challenged by Young's lawyer during the trial.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .