An innocent man has been freed from prison after serving 35 years of his wrongful conviction, partially thanks to a rerun of an old Mythbusters episode.
In September 1986, two brothers were killed in a fire at an apartment in Southwest Chicago. Two siblings managed to escape the fire, and told authorities that they believed the fire had been started by a neighbor in retaliation for the death of her brother, allegedly at the hands of a street gang known as the Latin Kings, the Innocence Project explains.
The neighbor was interviewed but pointed to 18-year-old John Galvan, his brother, and a third neighbor. Other neighbors also accused the three, and John, who had been asleep at his grandmother's house at the time of the fire, was arrested.
During his arrest, Galvan was interrogated and told he could go home if he implicated others in the crime, something that was also offered to another accused of the crime, Arthur Almendarez. Eventually, all three signed statements confessing to the crime, admitting to throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window of the apartment block. John and Arthur later said that these statements were signed following physical abuse, while the third accused man said that he had signed it drunk and without having been read his rights. All three were later convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated arson.
One problem with Galvan's statement, which would eventually help to get his conviction overturned, was that it claimed that he had lit the Molotov cocktail with a cigarette. Years later, when Galvan was 39, he watched a re-run of an episode of Mythbusters from his prison cell, and saw them prove that that was pretty much impossible. The show was testing Hollywood tropes, including that throwing a cigarette into a pool of gasoline would ignite it. They concluded, after several desperate attempts to light a fire with a cigarette (even rolling it around in there), that it was a myth.
In fact, though we'd really recommend just rubbing it against the ground, it is possible to put a cigarette out in gasoline if you are in one hell of a pinch.
Galvan contacted his lawyer, who by coincidence had also seen the episode, and she investigated this aspect of his case further. It turned out that in 2007, a team of researchers at America's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) had looked into the same thing, after a group of suspected arsonists claimed that fires had been accidentally started by cigarettes. The team tried 2,000 times to start a gasoline fire using a cigarette to light it, even spraying gasoline at a lit cigarette. Not once did it ignite.
"Despite what you see in action movies, dropping a lit cigarette on to a trail of gasoline won't ignite it, assuming normal oxygen levels and no unusual circumstances," the bureau told The Scotsman at the time.
"That's because the gasoline has limited contact with the hottest, glowing part of the ash, and X-ray thermography has shown that this is very localised."
Using arson experts to attest to the impossibility of lighting gasoline using cigarettes, and several witnesses who testified that the police officer who took the statements had used violent coercion elsewhere, Galvan's legal team were able to secure his exoneration. A few years later, at their own appeals, all three convictions were overturned.
“Mr. Galvan’s case speaks to the critical importance of establishing such mechanisms for people to get back into court when science changes or evolves, or when experts repudiate past testimony,” Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project director of policy said in a press release. “Without these mechanisms in many instances, innocent people are prevented from presenting forensic evidence of their innocence after their wrongful conviction.”
“A ‘change-in-science’ statute here would have allowed for a presentation reflecting those changes in arson science and could have likely expedited Mr. Galvan’s exoneration."