On June 1, Rachael Casey walked free from New York State’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility after serving fourteen years, thanks to the tireless work of Cornell Law School Professors John Blume and Keir Weyble and generations of students from the Cornell Law School Innocence Clinic. According to Blume, “junk” arson science had helped to convict the Corning, New York woman of setting the fire that killed her infant daughter in 2001.
A special prosecutor agreed to vacate all five of the charges on which Casey had been convicted, which included two counts of second-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson, and which had carried a sentence of twenty-five years to life in prison. In exchange, Casey, thirty-eight, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of second-degree attempted arson and second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to time served.
The Cornell Innocence Project has been working on Casey’s case since 2011. In 2012, Blume and Weyble, filed a motion along with another attorney, Bill Easton, to vacate Casey’s conviction. Blume is the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques and the director of the Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs, and director of the Cornell Death Penalty Project. Weyble is an associate clinical professor of law and the director of Death Penalty Litigation.
Casey’s original conviction had hinged on testimony from a fire inspector that intentional human involvement had caused the blaze that killed seven-month-old Kiara Casey Lawton. However, her new legal team argued that the inspector had relied on techniques that were woefully out-of-date and unsupported by science. Casey’s court-appointed attorney had failed to put up an adequate defense, they said, since he had been unaware of newer inspection methods that were widely accepted by the 2003 court date, and had failed to challenge the prosecution’s expert.
The fire inspector’s testimony relied on two indications that allegedly pointed to arson: a swirl pattern supposedly from flammable liquid that had been poured on the floor, and the detection of accelerants by an arson inspection dog. However, Weyble says, guidelines that were well established by the 1990s showed that the swirl was actually caused by a condition caused flashover, which occurs when built-up heat from an enclosed fire causes the spontaneous ignition of combustibles.
As for the dog, none of the nine samples taken tested positive for accelerants in a lab. “The prosecution’s explanation for that was, ‘Well, when in doubt, I believe the dog, because the dog is more reliable than the lab,'” says Weyble. “Which is exactly wrong, according to well-settled scientific consensus. But the defense lawyer didn’t know that and didn’t bother to make the point.”
Steuben County Court Judge Marianne Furfure initially issued an order in 2013 denying the defense’s claims without hearing any evidence. However, the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department overturned that judgment in November 2015, sending the matter back to Furfure. An evidentiary hearing was set for May 31 and June 1. “Both sides were on a collision course with the evidence, and as we got closer to that, we felt very good,” Weyble says. “And from my perspective, I think as we got closer it began to become clear to the other side that they didn’t have such a good case.
“That creates the opportunity for negotiation,” he says. “And that’s how we ended up with that agreement.”
Innocence Clinic students have spent years building the case for Casey’s release, doing everything from looking into fire inspection best practices to researching psychology and trauma to explain why Casey made conflicting statements during the investigation and trial. Melissa Gallo ’12 remembers tracking down and interviewing jurors who had voted to convict Casey-given that two juries had deadlocked before a third eventually convicted Casey, Gallo wanted to get a better idea what had played out in the jury room during that final trial.
“When we spoke to the jurors, it was clear that some of them had not paid attention to anything in the trial other than the fact that a baby’s life was lost and somebody needed to be blamed for that,” said Gallo, now policy director at the advocacy group Miami Homes for All.
Maria Gaige ’16, one of the last clinic students to work on Casey’s case, accompanied Weyble to the courthouse in Bath, New York, on June 1 to witness Casey’s release. Casey had been barred by the state from having any contact with her three surviving daughters until they turned eighteen, which for the youngest happened earlier this year, and they’re just starting to rebuild ties. “Her kids were super excited, her mom was really excited, she was really excited,” said Gaige, who will be working at the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Fourth Department. “I think she was just in disbelief that it was going to happen.”
Even amid the celebration, though, there are reminders of the toll taken by fourteen years behind bars. While sitting with Casey waiting for her release to be processed, Weyble and Easton took out their smartphones. “And she looked at us and said, ‘Are those phones?'” Weyble says. “She’s been removed. I mean, she had no idea.”