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. ••EndFragment