Monday, June 05, 2017

UIS Illinois Innocence Project client walks free after 22 years of wrongful imprisonment

Last week, William (Bill) Amor, a client of the Illinois Innocence Project (IIP) at the University of Illinois Springfield, walked free from the DuPage County Jail after 22 years of incarceration. His release came two months after a DuPage County judge overturned Amor’s 1997 arson murder conviction, finding that new arson-related scientific evidence was new evidence of actual innocence.

“It is undisputed by the experts in this case that fire science has evolved, and it has changed to such an extent that the original findings in this case are unreliable,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project Chicago office, who represents Bill Amor. “In fact, the evidence points to an accidental fire – which is what we believe occurred here. Bill Amor did not murder anyone and the science finally supports that which he has claimed for 22 years – he is innocent.

“We are so happy that Bill is free,” said Kaeseberg. “He’s ready to move on with his life and hopefully soon he can close this chapter of injustice.”

Amor’s case is particularly important because it is believed to be the first of its kind in the state of Illinois in which a court has found that advancements in fire science constitute newly discovered evidence of actual innocence. In Judge Liam Brennan’s ruling vacating Amor’s conviction in April, he concluded:

“…there can be no question that the lynchpin of the State’s case at trial was the defendant’s confession, which the State and Defense experts today agree is scientifically impossible. Whatever the reasons for the Defendant’s scientifically impossible confession, the new evidence places the evidence presented at trial in a different light and undercuts this Court’s confidence in the factual correctness of the guilty verdict.”

Prosecutors have indicated they plan to retry the case and a September trial date has been set.

“Bill has already served almost his entire sentence and we remain hopeful that prosecutors will decide that it is the legal, ethical and financial interests of the State not to retry this case,” said Kaeseberg.

Bill Amor is represented by four attorneys: Lauren Kaeseberg, Illinois Innocence Project legal director, Chicago office; Erica Nichols Cook, formerly of the Illinois Innocence Project, now pro bono counsel for Amor and currently Director of the Wrongful Conviction Division for the Iowa State Public Defender; Tara Thompson, staff attorney, the Exoneration Project; and Kevin Caraher, of the law firm Cozen O’Connor and pro bono attorney for Amor.

On the evening of September 10, 1995, Amor and his wife left their Naperville apartment (which they shared with Bill’s mother-in-law, Marianne Miceli) to go to a drive-in movie. They were gone for several hours and when they returned, they found that a fire had broken out at the apartment and Miceli had died from smoke inhalation.

Amor would be convicted two years later, on September 17, 1997, of murder and aggravated arson for setting the fire that caused Miceli’s death. Amor was convicted based upon a “confession” (which has been proven false) and arson findings that are no longer scientifically reliable. What stands out in this case is that Amor’s “confession” was the basis for the fire investigators in 1995 to change their initial finding of an “undetermined” cause of fire to an arson. With the exception of giving a false confession in this case, Amor has maintained his innocence from day one. He was ultimately sentenced to 45 years in prison.

The statement attributed to Amor was given to police after he had been in jail two weeks, after 15 hours of questioning and immediately following Amor being served divorce papers at the station. The “confession” included details as to how Amor purportedly started the fire with vodka and a lit cigarette – which, at a December 2016 hearing, all experts, including the State’s own witness, testified is not possible.

“False confessions and faulty forensic science are two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in this country,” said Tara Thompson, one of Amor’s attorneys. “We hope that the Amor case can set a new standard in this state for how old, unreliable evidence is to be viewed in light of modern advancements. We know of too many other innocent people in this state and around the country who are suffering from wrongful arson convictions.”

At the December hearing on Amor’s case, attorneys presented evidence that showed the original arson findings are no longer reliable when analyzed under modern fire science techniques. Nationally recognized arson experts testified about the new science that undercuts the conviction in this case, including: Doug Carpenter of Combustion Science & Engineering, Inc. in Columbia, Maryland, and John DeHaan of Fire-Ex Forensics in Vallejo, California. Further, ATF Senior Special Agent John Golder, called by the State at the hearing, conceded that the manner in which Amor’s confession claims the fire started is impossible and that Amor was not in the apartment when the fire started.

IIP’s work on Amor’s case was made possible by a federal grant to the University of Illinois Springfield for use by the Illinois Innocence Project.

No comments: