Shortly before dawn on April 7, 1993, a fire broke out on the first floor of the home of Weldon Wayne Carr and his wife, Patricia, in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
The blaze sent thick smoke billowing up to the second floor. Weldon Carr, 57, escaped the fire by leaping from a second story window. Patricia, 52, collapsed in her bedroom from smoke inhalation while still inside. She was rescued, but died three days later.
Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, an anonymous call was placed to police suggesting that the cause of the fire be investigated for possible arson.
On April 11, when Carr, the owner of one the oldest and most renowned mail order seed companies in the Southeast, was released from the hospital after treatment for smoke inhalation and other injuries, he was arrested and charged with murder and arson. Police said he used a flammable liquid to set the fire in a downstairs room because he had discovered his wife was having an affair.
Additional charges of aggravated assault and eavesdropping were later added, alleging that Carr struck his wife to keep her from escaping and that he had illegally tape-recorded conversations between his wife and her paramour.
Nancy Grace, the Fulton County prosecutor assigned to handle the trial, announced that arson investigators found a trail of paper “like a wick” between the dining room and the kitchen where the fire ignited under the bedroom where Patricia Carr was found.
Carr went on trial in April 1994 and the prosecution presented evidence that prior to the fire, Carr took 26 dress shirts to a dry cleaner although he had never taken clothes to a dry cleaner before; that he removed all his dress shoes from the house; that he ordered a copy of his and his wife’s wills be sent to his office; his college yearbooks, photographs and income tax papers had been removed from the house; the escape ladder kept in the master bedroom was missing and as was a key to unlock a deadbolt lock on the front door; and a tape recording of conversations between his wife and the neighbor with whom she was having an affair had been put in safe deposit box. He also had checked on his homeowners insurance—something he had not done in several years.
Arson investigators testified that the blaze was started with Neat-Lac, a leather-finishing liquid that is flammable. The investigators identified a pour pattern covering four feet at the doorway between the kitchen and the hallway.
The jury heard testimony that an accelerant detecting canine named Blaze had alerted 12 times to the presence of an accelerant inside the house, even though laboratory tests of the samples where Blaze alerted were negative.
Carr was convicted of murder, arson and eavesdropping on May 10, 1994. He was acquitted of hitting his wife.
As the judge prepared to sentence him, Carr, who did not testify at the trial, said he was innocent and that he was hoping to salvage his marriage. He denied ever striking her.
Carr was then sentenced to life in prison.
After the trial, Carr’s lawyers authorized further testing on the prosecution’s evidence by fire scientists, including John Lentini, one of the nation’s pre-eminent fire investigators. The tests showed that the cause of the blaze was electrical and that after it caused the bathroom to explode in flames, the fire came through the breakfast area doorway and radiation burned the floor—the cause of the pour pattern, not the Neat-Lac.
The “wick” of newspapers cited by Grace was discredited because there was no fire damage to the linoleum or hardwood floors where the trail of newspapers allegedly had been laid.
On appeal, Carr’s lawyers argued that the evidence relating to the canine alerts was improperly admitted and that the prosecutor, Grace, had committed misconduct.
They argued that Grace had made an unauthorized entry into Carr’s home to allow CNN to film footage for a feature on Grace, that she had helped engineer another unauthorized entry into the home by fire investigators, that she suppressed evidence that Patricia Carr’s lover and Patricia Carr’s best friend—both of whom were witnesses—had entered into a romantic relationship by the time of trial, that she withheld information that she and some prosecution witnesses were expending personal funds to obtain evidence, and that she engaged in improper argument before the jury.
On March 10, 1997, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Carr’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court agreed that the accelerant sniffing dog evidence was improperly entered into evidence because there was no evidence of any verification that the dog alerts were accurate.
The court also harshly criticized Grace, saying she had engaged in extensive inappropriate and in some instances illegal conduct, but did not cite the misconduct as a cause for reversal.
On December 13, 1997, when the case still had not come to trial for a second time, Carr was freed on bond. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he was awaiting a report from an independent analyst who was reviewing the evidence. That expert was not hired until 2001.
Nearly six years later, on May 19, 2003, Superior Court Judge Rowland Barnes dismissed the prosecution for failing to bring the case back to trial. Prosecutors said their expert found the defense finding that the fire was the result of an electrical malfunction convincing, but the circumstantial evidence—the removal of the items of clothing and other personal belongs—suggested Carr set the fire.
In January 2004, the Fulton County District Attorney asked the George Supreme Court to overturn the dismissal of the case. On June 28, 2004, the Supreme Court rejected that appeal.
Following the decision, Carr, for the first time, described what happened. He said that he went to bed first and that his wife was applying Neat-Lac to a pair of her sandals.
He said he was awakened by the smell of smoke and when he opened the bedroom door, there was an explosion of smoke. He said his wife panicked and was thrashing about as he tried to get them out through a window.
He said she broke away and then he could not find her. He decided that if he stayed, “all you would find is two dead people.”
– Maurice Possley