Attorneys for Daniel Dougherty, convicted of starting a fire that killed his two young sons in their Oxford Circle home in 1985, have until Friday to file their written briefs in an appeal to Superior Court.
The attorneys are appealing a recent decision by Common Pleas Court Judge Steven R. Geroff to deny a petition for a new trial. The judge ruled that the opinions of the experts Dougherty hired for the appeal would not have changed the outcome of the original trial.
After the defense files its briefs with Superior Court, the district attorney’s office will have 30 days to file its briefs.
Should Dougherty lose at the Superior Court level, his attorneys could ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to hear the matter. The defense has also filed appeals in the federal court system, which would hear the case once the state appeals are completed.
Dougherty, now 52, is serving a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole. He had been on death row, but the district attorney’s office in February agreed to overturn the death sentence.
Daniel Dougherty Jr., 4, and John Dougherty, 3, died in a fire as they slept in the second-floor bedroom of their home at 929½ Carver St. on Aug. 25, 1985.
At the time, the fire marshal labeled the blaze suspicious because it started in three places — the couch, love seat and under the dining room table.
Daniel Dougherty was the only other person home at the time. He was found standing on the front porch by a 2nd Police District sergeant and officer who asked his name.
“My name is mud. I should die for what I did,” he replied.
However, there was not enough evidence to charge him with the crime.
In 1999, detectives from the police special investigations unit met with the fire marshal to discuss unsolved arson cases. Detectives re-interviewed witnesses, and the district attorney’s office approved charges.
Police arrested Dougherty, who was living in Port Richmond, and he went on trial in October 2000.
Testimony included a formal statement Dougherty gave an hour after the incident. He told police he was asleep on the living room couch before awakening at 4 a.m. when he saw the curtains on the front window on fire. He unsuccessfully tried to put out the fire with a neighbor’s garden hose, then tried to climb a ladder to get to his children, but the flames prevented him from reaching them.
Also, two jailhouse informants testified that Dougherty told them he committed the crime to get revenge on his estranged wife, with whom he had quarreled in the hours leading up to the fire.
Dougherty testified that he was innocent, but a jury convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death by lethal injection.
The case has been in court numerous times since the sentence. The latest hearing was held in front of Geroff in June.
Dougherty’s defense team is questioning the effectiveness of his trial lawyer, the now-deceased Thomas Q. Ciccone Jr., for failing to hire a fire investigation expert.
Newly hired experts, who examined pictures of the scene, testified at the appeal that the burn patterns were connected, not distinct, an indication that the blaze could have been an accident. Attorneys speculate that the fire could have been caused by a smoldering cord, wire or cigarette.
However, Assistant District Attorney Barbara Paul argued that the experts could not rule out arson. She noted the lack of burns on Dougherty’s body and told the judge that then-Fire Marshal John Quinn’s findings are more trustworthy than those of the defense experts, since Quinn examined evidence at the house. ••