Trial by Fire

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"In the fire investigation business," he continues, "the people who do the work are not scientists; they're cops. The guy may or may not have gone to college, and if he did, he probably majored in criminal justice, not science."

In Pourghafari's case, the investigator was Davie fire marshal and former police officer Jarred Wiseman, who had had 40 hours of training in "fire chemistry" and 40 in "cause and origin." His lack of experience may have been a factor in the trial, had he not already left the force amid charges that he sold city-issued radios and scanners on eBay.

Prosecutor Cavanagh credits his adversaries' skill in placing doubt in the juries' collective mind. "The evidence is what it is," he sighs. "I don't want to criticize the jury. The defense had a magnificent lawyer and highly paid experts to testify."

Dutko says that, as part of his investigation, he was spending Saturdays boning up on fire physics, scouring every report and document about the case. But it wasn't until November 2002 that he noticed something useful to the defense.

After the fire was out, he learned, crews set up PPVs — positive pressure ventilators — to blow smoke outside. The huge fans are heavy, Dutko read, and they're full of gas. They're even refilled by hand from a gas can. When Dutko learned that at least one PPV had been used in the threshold of Alley's bedroom that day, he knew the contamination in the bedroom could have come from there.

Dutko says he realized then that he had a solid instance of reasonable doubt on his hands, maybe even enough to clear his client.

"They forgot to tell anybody about it for two years afterward," Lentini says. "You always wonder when you learn that kind of stuff [just] before a trial, did they screw up or were they hiding the ball?"

The expert hired by the prosecution, forensics expert John DeHaan, dismisses the PPV theory: "You can't have gasoline vapors from a fan penetrating waterlogged debris," he says. "And the roommates' description of the rapidity and size all fit with an accelerated fire."

DeHaan says he's no stranger to the rampant bad science that leads to innocent people accused of setting fires. He's written books decrying it, he says. But he still believes Pourghafari probably got away with murder.

"The prosecution was focused on the right guy," he contends. "I thought the case was sound." All the facts, he says, "fit with a fire deliberately set on the bed."

In his official report, DeHaan noted that gasoline had been detected in the carpet and the underlying pad of the bedroom, as well as on the shorts Alley was wearing.

What about the possibility of an accident? Could Alley have died because of some weird electrical mishap?

Cavanagh shrugs dismissively. "It certainly would have had to have been a strange accident," he says. "And it's particularly coincidental that he [Pourghafari] just happened to be right there within seconds after it happened."

Dutko formulated a persuasive alternate theory, bolstered by an unexplained laceration on Alley's head and a charred piece of wood lying across what was left of her bed. The large headboard above the old waterbed and its set of halogen lights could have ignited the blaze, possible accelerated by the gasoline traces investigators had found, he argued. The bed set was even reconstructed for the jury's convenience. Improperly attached to the wall, the halogen light fixture could have fallen, landed atop the bed, and sparked the blaze, explaining the wood found on the bed as well as Alley's head injury.

Ultimately, it came down to the kinds of narratives presented by the prosecution and defense.

The prosecution's sweeping murder scenario, Dutko says, "required huge leaps of logic: 'He loves her, so therefore he doused her with gasoline and killed her. '"

Juror Mary Barnes notes that the night before, Amanda and Kaz went to a movie (Saving Private Ryan) and out to dinner (Longhorn Steakhouse) before he took her home.

"And then he'd go back the next morning and kill her? It's outrageous. I know in my heart that he didn't do that."

Although the jurors were forced to grope to understand the prosecution's explanation of Pourghafari's motives, the defense scenario seemed to make sense: Kaz was a man in love, and he appeared to behave accordingly.

Lentini agrees: "What's wrong with this case is that nobody did a reality check, just stood back and say, 'Does this make sense?'"

Still, as the trial began after six years of delays, acquittal appeared to be a long shot.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton