In August 1978, six firefighters were killed while attempting to extinguish a fire at a supermarket in Brooklyn, New York. Investigators determined that the fire was caused by arson. Based on a tip, police arrested 21-year-old Eric Jackson-Knight.
Detectives said that Jackson-Knight confessed that he, along with two accomplices, had been paid to set the fire, although police arrested no one other than Jackson-Knight.
Jackson-Knight claimed that he confessed only to participating in a different arson, which occurred two years before the Brooklyn fire, and in which no one was hurt.
At trial in Kings County Supreme Court, a fellow inmate testified that while he and Jackson-Knight were housed together at Rikers Island jail, Jackson-Knight admitted setting the supermarket fire. In December 1980, a jury convicted Jackson-Knight of murder and arson and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
After the conviction, Jackson-Knight’s case was reviewed in preparation for a civil lawsuit brought by families of the firefighters who lost their lives. During an investigation of the fire, one of the lawyers for the firefighters’ families determined that the fire was not arson, but was instead an accident. Others involved in the civil case, including city officials and contractors also became convinced of Jackson-Knight’s innocence. The attorney convinced the judge who presided over Jackson-Knight’s trial to reopen the case.
In 1988, the judge vacated Jackson-Knight’s conviction and ordered a new trial after finding that prosecutors improperly withheld information from the defense, including a statement from a police arson investigator that the fire was not arson, but electrical.
The judge also found that prosecutors withheld a statement by a police detective saying that he believed the fire department had planted evidence of arson, and a memo showing that the fire marshal had given false testimony at trial about some aspects of the investigation. Another memo showing that the inmate who testified against Jackson-Knight gave inconsistent statements to the police, and evidence that the fire started inside the store, not on the roof as Jackson-Knight said in his supposed “confession” was also not disclosed to the defense.
Jackson-Knight was released in 1988, but returned to prison several times for unrelated charges while awaiting retrial. He was finally retried in August 1994. At retrial, Jackson-Knight’s attorney argued again that his confession was for a different arson and that the supermarket fire was not arson, but an electrical fire. In August 1994, the jury acquitted Jackson-Knight of all charges.
Jackson-Knight later filed a request for compensation from the New York Court of Claims, but the claim was denied.
- Stephanie Denzel