Expert: Evidence That Sent Local Man To Prison For Killing Stepsons Flawed

An expert witness testified Friday that the evidence that sent a local man to prison for burning his stepsons to death in a backyard shed was the product of a flawed investigation and that modern techniques show the fire was accidental, not intentional.

Ed Graf in court Friday. (Photo by John Carroll)

Investigators and experts for the prosecution told the jury back in 1988 that certain patterns found on the floor of the shed could only mean the fire was set with an accelerant, but recent findings by arson experts may indicate other causes, and Waco attorney Walter (Skip) Reaves thinks they could lead to a different verdict.

Graf and the two boys were the only people at home on Angel Fire Drive in Hewitt on the day of the fire in August 1986.

Graf had picked the boys up from daycare and arrived home around 5 p.m. Just 10 minutes later the boys were dead.

Former McLennan County District Attorney Vic Feazell maintains there's no that doubt Graf set the fire that killed the boys and that the conviction in 1988 was appropriate. 

"It is true that science knows a lot more about fires than was known back then," Feazell said. "It was other evidence that led to the jury's decision," he said.

Feazell said his investigators accumulated an incredible amount of circumstantial evidence that pointed to Graf's guilt, including insurance policies bought on the 8- and 9-year-old boys within weeks of their deaths.

Feazell, now a private practice lawyer in Waco and Austin, remembers the prosecution in detail.

"There was a lot of evidence that we presented and the jury considered it and found Mr. Graf guilty," Feazell told News 10.

Reaves' contention, however, is that the boys themselves started the fire inside the shed. He thinks the door was open and the flames were so intense the boys were unable to escape. A neighbor has told Reaves he saw the doors open at the time of the deadly fire.

Hewitt police had the burned-out shed bulldozed the night of the fire to prevent the boys' mother from having to see its remains when she awoke the next morning and as a result some vital evidence could have been destroyed. Feazell sent investigators to the city dump to recover the door and frame from the shed and says he clearly remembers the door latch was closed from the outside; something the boys could not have done from inside the shed.

"The latch was closed and that door and pictures of that door with the latch closed were entered into evidence at trial," Feazell said. "Those boys could not have closed that latch on the outside of the door from inside the shed," he said.

But even if the trial court had barred introduction of the fire evidence, Feazell says the outcome would have been the same.

"He was an extremely meticulous man and he kept detailed records of events and completed tasks on a close schedule, yet he failed to attend to things regarding those boys in the days before their deaths. I believe because he knew they wouldn't be around much longer," Feazell said.

As to the evidence, Feazell believes the original trial transcript will erase any hope Graf has of a new trial.

"I don't believe Mr. Graf will get a new trial because I truly believe in my heart he killed those boys, but I think the process is good," Feazell said. "But I think it's good for Reaves to be looking into this because any time we revisit evidence and criminal prosecution issues, it just makes our justice system stronger," Feazell said.  (Paul Gately)

WACO (January 11, 2013)—Combustion science expert Douglas James Carpenter of Baltimore testified Friday that the evidence that sent a suburban Waco man to prison nearly 25 years ago for the fiery deaths of his two stepsons in 1986 was based on a hypothesis that new studies have debunked as myth.

Ed Graf is seeking a new trial based on modern forensic techniques that could prove he didn't start the Aug. 26, 1986 fire that killed his two stepsons ages 8, and 9, in the backyard of the family’s home in Hewitt.

Carpenter testified Friday that he thinks the fire started accidentally and he said the doors of the shed had to be open based on the carbon monoxide levels in the lungs of the two boys, not closed as prosecutors maintained during Graf’s original trial.

Graf was convicted of capital murder in 1988 after a McLennan County jury found that he set fire to the shed after locking the boys inside.

Investigators and experts for the prosecution told the jury in 1988 that certain patterns found on the floor of the shed could only mean the fire was set with an accelerant.

But recent findings by arson experts may indicate other causes, and Graf's attorney, Walter (Skip) Reaves of Waco, thinks they could lead to a different verdict.

A second witness, arson expert Robert Paul Bieber of San Jose, Calif., testified Friday that he presented Graf’s case to 33 top arson investigators who concluded that the findings of the original investigation were unreliable.

If retired State District Judge George Allen, who presided over Graf’s trial in 1988, finds the new evidence sheds doubt on guilt, Graf could be set free and prosecutors would then have to decide if he should be re-tried.

Another hearing is scheduled for Jan. 24, after which Allen will make his recommendation, which will be sent automatically to a state appeals court.

Graf's conviction is among between 25 and 50 nationwide involved in a study conducted by New York-based John Jay College, that says that because arson investigations prior to 2005 were flawed, many people convicted of arson murder prior to 2005 could have been wrongly convicted.

It's high science that has to do with burn patterns and findings of the use of accelerants based upon those patterns.

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