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A Pennsylvania man has been exonerated of murder charges connected to a deadly house fire after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life nearly 40 years ago.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office secured the exoneration of Harold Staten for a 1984 house fire in which one man was killed, and four others were injured.
"Substantial changes in fire science have significantly altered modern fire investigation standards and accepted practices," Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) Assistant Supervisor ADA Carrie Wood said. "Current fire investigations rely on a modern understanding of fire dynamics and the scientific method — all of which was absent from the investigation in this case."
At about 3:30 a.m. on Oct. 30, 1984, a home on North Percy Street caught fire, forcing four occupants to jump from second-floor windows. One of the occupants who jumped was Charles Harris, who later died at a hospital.
The Philadelphia Fire Department’s Fire Marshal’s Office and Philadelphia Police Department investigated the fire, and a then lieutenant with the Fire Marshal’s Office told investigators the fire was intentionally set in the vestibule by an "open flame applied to an accelerant."
But when the Philadelphia Criminalistics Laboratory conducted a chemical analysis the next day, it was unable to find evidence of an accelerant in the samples of the floorboards taken from the vestibule.
After interviewing several witnesses, police were unable to make an arrest at the time.
In March 1986, Staten was arrested on charges of murder and arson, after a 17-year-old witness who said she never saw Staten at the home on the night of the fire changed her story.
Judge Lisa Richette oversaw the two-day bench trial of Staten, during which the lieutenant testified the fire was set deliberately using an accelerant. Also, during the trial, the 17-year-old witness gave conflicting accounts of seeing Staten outside the home and admitted to using cocaine on the night of the fire.
Although Judge Richette acknowledged the 17-year-old’s conflicting statements and that the case was not easy, she found Staten guilty of second-degree murder, arson and other charges, sentencing him to life in prison without parole.
About two years later in 1988, the DA’s office said, the credibility of the 17-year-old was brought into questions after her roommate testified during a post-conviction hearing that the key witness came home from a disco on the night of the fire so "drunk, pissy drunk" and "really intoxicated… very intoxicated," that he and her boyfriend had to carry her upstairs to bed.
Both the roommate and Staten’s attorney testified that the 17-year-old witness admitted to lying about Staten’s involvement in the blaze after she was taken out to lunch by police officers.
On behalf of Staten, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project filed a new Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition in 2020. Two years later, the DA’s office provided discovery and Staten’s petition for relief came under review.
Forensic expert Dixon Robin was retained in 2023, and after reviewing the investigation that led to Staten’s arrest, he concluded the cause and determination of the fire were not supported under modern investigation standards. Robin also concluded the cause of the fire should be considered undetermined, not arson.
He noted that at the time, the lieutenant had access to two pieces of evidence: the heavy damage and the fire pattern on the floor of the vestibule. Both pieces, Robin said, are not actually evidence of anything other than a fire had occurred.
"The criminal legal system has an imperative to keep pace with advancements in the sciences, so that police and prosecutors have the sharpest and most accurate investigative tools possible to solve cases more quickly and accurately," Krasner said. "Due to the passage of time, we unfortunately may never know how the fire began that killed Charles Harris nearly four decades ago. Modern technologies such as smoke detectors have made most residential fires survivable, and my office will continue to work with our public safety partners in the city to achieve that fully realizable goal."