A judge has thrown out the arson conviction of a Friendship man after experts testified that the fire at Joseph Awe’s Harrisville bar likely was caused by an electrical malfunction and that the state had used flawed methodology in determining that it was arson.
Marquette County Circuit Judge Richard O. Wright granted a new trial Thursday to Awe, 42, who is nearing the end of his three-year prison sentence at Oregon Correctional Center.
Wright’s decision hinged on investigators’ use of a now-discredited method known as “negative corpus” — the conclusion that a fire must have been intentional if an accidental cause can’t be found. The National Fire Protection Association guide was updated after Awe’s 2007 conviction to say such a method should never be used.
“The standard stated in this guide now advises that it is improper to give an opinion as to a specific ignition source that has no evidence to support it, simply by eliminating all other hypothesized sources,” Wright wrote in his four-page decision.
The judge noted that the state never determined how the fire started and “there was no direct evidence of the defendant’s guilt.”
Irene Awe, reached by phone at her home in Friendship, burst into tears after being notified of the decision clearing her husband. Awe likely will be released Monday, said attorney Eric Haag, who is filling in for Awe’s attorney, who is out of the country.
“That’s the best news ever!” Irene Awe said. “We’ve been fighting for so long. At least now we can prove that he didn’t do anything. He said, ‘You have no idea how hard it is, especially knowing you’re innocent.’ I’m sure he’s going to be ecstatic.”
Marquette County District Attorney Chad Hendee did not return messages left Thursday and Friday. Hendee must decide whether to file new charges against Awe, who had been set to be released May 30, or drop the case.
Awe’s case was featured in “Burning Questions: Arson or Accident?” a four-part State Journal series in 2011. The series exposed the crucial role that insurance companies with a financial stake in the outcome of a criminal case play in investigating fires and the unscientific methods sometimes used by fire investigators. Awe was charged with allegedly torching J.J.’s Pub to collect the insurance money.
In Awe’s case, it was an investigator hired by Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Co. who reached the crucial conclusion that the Sept. 11, 2006, fire was not electrical, prompting Deputy State Fire Marshal James Siehelr to conclude that it was intentionally set.
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Awe was charged as party to the crime of arson, but no co-defendant ever was charged or even mentioned by then-Marquette County District Attorney Richard Dufour. Dufour also did not counter Awe’s contention — backed up by two witnesses as part of his appeal — that he was at home, 34 miles away, when the blaze broke out at the tavern, which had a history of electrical problems.
Awe’s appeal rested in part on two nationally known fire investigators who testified that the state and Mt. Morris misidentified the origin and cause of the fire.
Mark Svare, a forensic electrical engineer from Anoka, Minn., testified that wiring in the 130-year-old building was faulty and antiquated and that the fire started in the “immediate vicinity of the (electrical) service panel.”
John Lentini, an Islamorada, Fla., fire investigator who is on the committee that writes national standards for fire investigation, also testified that Siehelr used “negative corpus” to declare the blaze an arson. Wright wrote that Lentini’s testimony was “credible enough to blow a huge hole in the state’s case.”
Hendee had argued that a new standard does not constitute new evidence since earlier NFPA guides had warned of the dangers of this type of process of elimination.
Sued by insurance company
Awe’s attorney, Stephen Meyer, reached in London, said he felt “overwhelming joy for Joe and a deep satisfaction of getting an opportunity to remedy a wrong.” Haag said he had spoken to Awe Friday morning and “he is looking forward to seeing his family and for the chance to clear his name and exonerate himself.”
Awe continues to battle his insurance company in Marquette County Circuit Court. After Awe was convicted, Mt. Morris sued him to recoup the $67,000 it had spent investigating the blaze. Irene Awe has countersued, arguing that the insurance company should pay the claim since J.J.’s Pub was insured in her name. A hearing in that case is scheduled for Monday — also before Judge Wright.
Haag, who is representing Awe in that case, said the overturned conviction should help Awe in the civil case, opening up “all kinds of possibilities” for claims against Mt. Morris.
Mt. Morris attorney Douglas Raines did not return email and phone messages left Friday.