Three New York men exonerated in 1980 fire that killed family of six

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York judge on Wednesday exonerated three men convicted of murder and arson in a 1980 apartment fire that killed a family of six after prosecutors conceded they were found guilty on the basis of unreliable witness testimony and unsound science.

William Vasquez, Amaury Villalobos and Raymond Mora served a collective four decades in prison after convictions in connection with a fire that tore through a Brooklyn apartment building 35 years ago. The blaze killed Elizabeth Kinsey, 27, and her five children, ranging in age from 9 years to 9 months.

"After a thorough investigation, we've concluded that these three men were wrongly convicted based on weak evidence, outdated science and the testimony of a single wholly unreliable witness," Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson said in a statement. "We now move to corrected this miscarriage of justice."

Vasquez, 70, and Villalobos, 66, both paroled in 2012, were on hand at New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn on Wednesday to hear their convictions overturned. Mora died while incarcerated in 1989.

The men were arrested soon after the 1980 fire. Hannah Quick, who sold heroin from her home on the building's second floor, told police she believed the three had started the fire, district attorney spokesman Oren Yaniv said on Wednesday.

Quick knew the men from the drug scene and disliked them, giving her an incentive to accuse them of a crime, Yaniv said. By testifying against the men, who she said she saw fleeing just before the fire broke out, Quick also collected insurance payout and received leniency in a pending drug case against her.

Shortly before her death last year, Quick told relatives she had lied in her testimony and did not believe the men committed the crime, Yaniv said.

No physical evidence linked the men to the fire, which prosecutors now say could have been started accidentally, either by addicts who frequently cooked drugs in the apartment where the fire started, or faulty electrical wiring in the building. Investigators say they are uncertain what caused the blaze.

Fire officials had testified during the trials that forensic evidence pointed to arson as the cause. But many of the methods and reasoning used in 1980 to determine that a fire was intentionally set are no longer considered valid, leading to a string of exonerations in recent years.

In one high-profile case, 80-year-old Queens, New York, resident Han Tak Lee was freed from prison last year after a federal magistrate ruled the arson evidence used to convict him of murder was based on outmoded beliefs about arson.

Lee spent 24 years behind bars for the death by fire of his mentally ill daughter.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by James Dalgleish)