Defense requests new trial in deadly arson case
The mother, grandmother and three aunts of Daniel and John Dougherty sat in a courtroom last week as the boys’ father — convicted of starting a fire that killed them way back in the summer of 1985 — sought a new trial.
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. in Oxford Circle 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 Sr. 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, and he went on trial in October 2000.
Key testimony was provided by a 2nd Police District sergeant and officer, who found Dougherty on the front porch. 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 had quarreled in the hours leading up to the fire.
Dougherty took the stand and denied any involvement, but was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by lethal injection.
The Dougherty case has been in court numerous times since that verdict and sentence. His current defense team has questioned the effectiveness of his trial lawyer, the now- deceased Thomas Q. Ciccone Jr., for failing to hire a fire investigation expert.
In February, the district attorney’s office agreed to overturn his death sentence in favor of life without parole.
At a two-day court hearing in March, fire experts John Lentini and Angelo Pisani testified for the defense that there was no basis for declaring the blaze an arson. They cited burn patterns that were connected, not distinct, an indication that the blaze could have been an accident.
Common Pleas Court Judge Steven R. Geroff ordered written briefs and set oral arguments for June 13.
Defense attorney David S. Fryman said advances in fire science led Lentini and Pisani to declare the cause of the fire to be “undetermined.”
“Mr. Quinn’s theory has no scientific basis,” he said of then-Fire Marshal John Quinn.
Fryman told Geroff that Lentini and Pisani could have impeached Quinn’s testimony and swayed at least one juror, had they been hired for the original trial. He said Dougherty has suffered an injustice and a constitutional violation for 12 years.
In a bit of theatrics, Fryman gave a mock closing argument to an empty jury box. He suggested that a cord, wire or cigarette could smolder, leading to thick, hot smoke and ultimately a full fire.
“The burn patterns at 929½ Carver did not reflect multiple points of origin,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney John Doyle used Quinn’s findings in his closing arguments back in 2000. Doyle was in court again last week. A colleague, Barbara Paul, argued for the prosecution.
Paul noted that Lentini and Pisani could not rule out arson. She recounted some of the trial testimony, including the lack of burns on Dougherty’s body.
The prosecutor said Quinn’s findings are more trustworthy because he examined evidence at the house, while the defense experts looked at pictures, adding that their testimony was “equivocable.”
Geroff asked Paul about Ciccone’s failure to hire a fire investigation expert.
“I concede that he would have done a better job cross-examining Mr. Quinn if he had an expert,” she replied.
The judge asked the prosecutor whether she would feel more confident in the jury’s verdict if the defense had a fire expert.
“No your honor, not these experts,” she said, referring to Lentini and Pisani.
Geroff said he would re-read the written briefs and take the matter under advisement.
Paul and Doyle met with the boys’ family afterward.
“I just want it all done,” said Kathleen Dipple, their mother.
“He deserves to be where he’s at,” said Kathryn Dahill, their grandmom. “He should never get out. He knows what he’s done.” ••