In 1988, private investigator Don Youngblood watched with disbelief as his client, Ed Graf, was convicted of intentionally setting a fire in a shed behind his home in Hewitt, Texas, that killed his two step-sons.
Youngblood, a former police detective who became a private eye in 1979, was convinced that his client was innocent. He was stunned when the jury delivered its verdict: "Guilty!".
Nine-year old Allen Graf and eight year old Jason Graf died of smoke inhalation and severe burns in a tragic fire that was initially ruled an accident. The charred debris was not treated like a crime scene. Shortly before the fire neighbors reported catching the two boys playing with matches and smoking cigarettes. By the time District Attorney Vic Feazell decided to launch a criminal investigation the debris had been hauled to a landfill, making it impossible to test the evidence.
Youngblood said one of the firefighters later told Graf’s wife, Claire, that the children’s hands appeared to be bound, which turned out to be false.
"She started to think of every little thing that Ed had ever done, and had it in her mind that Ed must have done it", said Youngblood. She conveyed her suspicions to the district attorney. Ed Graf allowed the boys’ cereal to run low in the Tupperware containers, she said, suggesting he intended to kill the children because he knew there was no need to refill the containers since they would not be around to eat cereal, said Youngblood.
Another thing that was suspicious, she said, was that Ed insisted on keeping the tags on the school clothes he purchased for the boys. And after the fire on Aug. 26, 1986, he returned the clothes for a refund. Youngblood said Ed kept the tags on the clothes in case they didn’t fit, because they hadn’t tried on the cloths.
The most incriminating evidence was the life insurance Ed purchased for the boys a few months before their deaths. However, Youngblood said the insurance policy Ed purchased was set up as a college savings plan for his two step-sons. "When he was a kid Ed’s Dad took out a Washington Mutual Life Insurance policy on him and let it build-up for college. And when he got ready to go to college he cashed it in". Ed purchased the same type of policy for Allen and Jason.
Graf was indicted on capital murder charges, but the jury opted not to impose a death sentence. "There’s a reason in my mind why he did not get the death penalty" said Youngblood, "because one or maybe two, or more people on the jury didn’t think he did it". A state fire marshal investigator was the main witness for the prosecution. Relying on photographs taken after the fire, he opined that the fire was intentionally started by pouring gasoline, and locking the door of the shed, after igniting the gasoline. The state’s fire expert pointed to the presence of three burn patterns on the floor of the shed and interpreted these as "pour patterns", indicating where a flammable liquid had been poured.
"We know now that’s not true", said Youngblood. He said science proves that the burn patterns had been caused by flashover, a point at which the heat of a fire becomes so intense that it causes everything inside a room to ignite in flames. The misinterpretation of burn patterns by arson investigators has led to a staggering number of convictions of innocent people over the years, according to the national Innocence Project.
Had the door been locked shut the fire would have extinguished itself for lack of oxygen, said Youngblood. He believes the two boys became trapped inside the shed by the fire, which grew intense from the door being open. The adoption of a science based approach to arson investigations is a recent trend that began in 1992, when the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standards Council released the first edition of NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. Before these standards were adopted arson investigators interpreted "multiple burn patterns" at a fire scene as presumptive evidence of arson.
John Lentini, a nationally prominent fire expert said before the adoption of NFPA 921, fire investigators were not using a science-based approach in making their conclusions about the cause and origin fires. Over twenty years ago, prosecutors in Duvall County, Florida, consulted with Lentini in a case where they planned to seek the death penalty against Gerald Lewis, who was alleged to have intentionally set fire to his home that killed his pregnant wife and four children. Lentini initially accepted the conclusion of fire investigators, who pointed to multiple burn patterns as evidence of "pour patterns". Lentini set up an experiment to test the father’s claim that the fire was caused when a couch in the living room accidently ignited. The experiment proved that the multiple burn patterns were most likely caused by flashover. Letini’s experiment showed that flashover can occur in a much shorter time than previously thought, in less than four minutes.
In Texas, the misinterpretation of multiple burn patterns as evidence for determining arson sent one man, Cameron Todd Willingham, to the execution chamber. Willingham was executed in 2004, for allegedly setting fire to his home that killed his three young girls. Prosecutors based their case on the testimony of the deputy state fire marshal, who interpreted multiple burn patterns as evidence of a liquid accelerant like gasoline being poured. Some of the leading fire experts in the country, including Lentini, reviewed the testimony of the state’s fire expert and concluded that Willingham had been convicted based on flawed testimony. The multiple burn patterns had been caused by flashover.
In 2009, a report by the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that the state’s experts in the Willingham case relied on "folklore" and "myths" rather than scientific methods for analyzing the cause and origin of fires. Youngblood was hired by Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project at Cardoza Law School in New York City, who filed a posthumous pardon for Willingham. Youngblood’s investigation discredited the jailhouse "snitch" Johnny E. Webb, who testified at trial that Willingham confessed to him while in jail awaiting trial. "There was a lot of question about his testimony, whether it was true", said Youngblood. "I’m the one who found the letters that busted things right open", said Youngbloood. When he went to interview Webb’s mother, she handed over a box full of letters. The letters revealed that Webb had been granted undisclosed favors by the prosecutor in exchange for his testimony, which included a reduced sentence, as well as a truck and the payment of money when he got out of jail. Webb later recanted his trial testimony, and admitted he lied at Willingham’s trial. Scheck contacted Youngblood again in 2011, to work on the case of Michael Morton after the courts finally granted his request for DNA testing. Scheck explained that CODIS identified the real killer of Morton’s wife as Mark Alan Norwood. He wanted Youngblood to find him. Youngblood was able to locate Norwood, and conducted an hour long interview. Michael Morton was released from prison on Oct. 4, 2011, after spending nearly 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The case made national news after the prosecutor who convicted Morton was arrested for withholding exculpatory evidence, and served a short time in jail. Youngblood said he receives both personal and professional satisfaction investigating innocence. "I like doing that kind of work", said Youngblood.
Ed Graf, who was arrested the same year as Michael Morton—1986—is scheduled to be re-tried on Oct. 6th. The highest court in Texas reversed his conviction last year, citing the flawed testimony of the state’s fire experts. "This false testimony violated his due process rights", said the judges. Although a new defense team is representing Graf for the re-trial, PI Youngblood has been subpoenaed as defense witness. He is cautiously optimistic that this time, that jury will get it right.
By Bill Clutter