Appeal is on for dad who set '85 fire that killed sons


The de­fense and pro­sec­u­tion must sub­mit writ­ten briefs by May 18 in the ap­peal of a man con­victed of set­ting a fire that killed his young sons in Ox­ford Circle in 1985.

Daniel Dougherty, 52, was in Com­mon Pleas Court for a hear­ing on March 8-9.

Dougherty main­tains he is in­no­cent of the crime. At the hear­ing, two fire ex­perts who re­viewed the evid­ence for the de­fense test­i­fied that there was no basis for de­clar­ing the blaze an ar­son.

Judge Steven R. Ge­r­off de­ferred ad­ju­dic­a­tion and will hear or­al ar­gu­ments on June 13.

Daniel Dougherty Jr., 4, and John Dougherty, 3, died in a fire on Aug. 24, 1985, as they slept in the second-floor bed­room of their row home at 929½ Carv­er St. The boys were found in bed and pro­nounced dead at the scene at about 4 a.m.

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. Dougherty was the only oth­er per­son home at the time, but 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.

Dougherty went on tri­al in Oc­to­ber 2000.

Key testi­mony was provided by a 2nd Po­lice Dis­trict ser­geant and of­ficer, who found Dougherty on the front patio. They asked him his name.

“My name is mud. I should die for what I did,” he said.

In a form­al state­ment about an hour after the in­cid­ent, Dougherty told po­lice he was asleep on the liv­ing room couch be­fore awaken­ing when he heard flames and 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.

At tri­al, two jail­house in­form­ants test­i­fied that Dougherty told them he com­mit­ted the crime to get re­venge on his es­tranged wife, with whom he ar­gued in the hours lead­ing up to the fire.

Dougherty test­i­fied, tear­fully deny­ing that he set the fire.

A jury con­victed Dougherty of first-de­gree murder and fol­lowed that up with a sen­tence of death by leth­al in­jec­tion.

At the hear­ing earli­er this month, the de­fense ar­gued for a new tri­al, present­ing the two fire ex­perts who looked at pic­tures and de­term­ined that the burn pat­terns were con­nec­ted, not dis­tinct, an in­dic­a­tion that the blaze could have been an ac­ci­dent.

On cross-ex­am­in­a­tion by As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney John Doyle, the ex­perts ac­know­ledged that they could not rule out ar­son.

Doyle de­fen­ded the ori­gin­al rul­ing of the city fire mar­shal who had ex­amined the evid­ence at the scene.

“The fire mar­shal suc­cess­fully elim­in­ated the pos­sib­il­ity of an ac­ci­dent in his testi­mony at tri­al. He called it ac­cur­ately. He had the best op­por­tun­ity to see it,” he said.

The Dougherty case has been in court nu­mer­ous times since the ver­dict and sen­tence.

In 2004, the Pennsylvania Su­preme Court up­held the con­vic­tion and death sen­tence, rul­ing that the evid­ence at tri­al was suf­fi­cient to es­tab­lish that Dougherty set the fire with the spe­cif­ic in­tent to kill his sons. The court denied an ap­peal for re-ar­gu­ment two months later.

In 2005, the U.S. Su­preme Court denied Dougherty’s pe­ti­tion to re­view the lower court rul­ing.

In Janu­ary 2006, then-Gov. Ed Rendell signed a death war­rant for Dougherty. However, Com­mon Pleas Court Judge Ren­ee Card­well Hughes, who was also the tri­al judge, is­sued a stay of ex­e­cu­tion.

In 2009, Hughes denied a pe­ti­tion to over­turn the guilty ver­dict and death sen­tence.

Dougherty is now serving a sen­tence of life without pa­role, as the dis­trict at­tor­ney’s of­fice agreed to over­turn his death sen­tence. The de­fense had ques­tioned the ef­fect­ive­ness of his tri­al law­yer be­cause he did not hire a fire in­vest­ig­a­tion ex­pert. That law­yer has since died.

Ge­r­off signed an or­der in Feb­ru­ary mov­ing Dougherty off death row. ••


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