On the night of August 30, 1979, Louis DiNicola and a friend, Michael Jefferson, walked from their work at McCreary Roofing in Erie, Pennsylvania to the apartment of Deborah Sweet, a single mother with two children. Jefferson lived in an upstairs apartment with his mother, Cora, and her fiancé, Eugene Pitts.
After Sweet put the children to bed, the three of them drank beer and smoked marijuana. Jefferson and Sweet went to her bedroom where they made love and fell asleep. DiNicola, 29, went to sleep on the sofa in the living room at the other end of the house.
Sometime after midnight, DiNicola was awakened by a fire and heavy smoke in the vicinity of a stereo system and he yelled for Jefferson and Sweet to get out. DiNicola was able to help Jefferson’s mother, Cora, escape from the second floor, but 42-year-old Eugene Pitts died.
Heavy smoke and flames prevented anyone from getting near the bedroom where Sweet’s two children, four-year-old Geoffrey and eight-year-old Alissa, were asleep. Both died of smoke inhalation.
Investigators from the Pennsylvania State Police found heavy alligator charring on the floor of the den, which was adjacent to both the living room and the children’s bedrooms. Analysis of debris revealed a fluid similar to Stoddard solvent, a kerosene class product which was used regularly to remove tar from tools at the roofing company that employed DiNicola and Jefferson.
Based on these discoveries, they decided that the fire was intentionally set by DiNicola because he was upset that Sweet chose to have sex with Jefferson—not him. Electrical malfunction and a gas leak were ruled out as possible causes.
When they questioned Deborah Sweet at the hospital, however, she told them that she had not heard DiNicola in the den, a fact that did not fit their view that the flammable liquid had been poured on the floor of the den. The interview was taped.
Sweet was then taken to a local psychiatric hospital and hypnotized to “refresh her recollection.” Following hypnosis, Sweet said that DiNicola had left the apartment, and then returned and that the fire broke out later.
DiNicola was charged with arson and three counts of murder on March 26, 1980.
At trial, Sweet testified to a version of events consistent with her post-hypnosis memory. The tape recording of the initial interview was not disclosed to the defense.
On October 20, 1980, DiNicola was convicted of arson and three counts of second-degree murder. On February 27, 1981 he was sentenced to three consecutive sentences of life in prison.
While in prison, DiNicola met a political activist who came to believe in his innocence who contacted former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who took over the appeal in the case.
The conviction was reversed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on December 6, 1983. The court found that the jury had improperly heard testimony that during the interrogation of DiNicola by police in October 1979 a prosecutor came into the interrogation room, DiNicola asked the prosecutor what he thought of the case, and the prosecutor replied, “I think you did it.”
The court found that evidence was improper opinion testimony and ordered a new trial for DiNicola.
DiNicola was released on bond on February 17, 1984 while awaiting retrial.
The case was moved from Erie County to Washington County. Prior to trial, the judge excluded any testimony based on Sweet’s post-hypnotic recollections.
The case was delayed as the prosecution appealed the order. On May 15, 1985, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania upheld the trial court’s order excluding the hypnotically-retrieved testimony. In the meantime, the defense had finally obtained a copy of the taped interview of Sweet prior to the hypnosis in which she corroborated DiNicola’s version of what occurred at the time of the fire.
DiNicola’s lawyers asked that the case be dismissed on double jeopardy grounds, but the motion was denied. An appeal of that ruling—which ultimately was denied—further delayed the case from coming to trial.
Louis DiNicola’s younger brother, Ron, a first-year law student at Georgetown University Law School when Louis was arrested, began working on the case and in 1994, he contacted John Lentini, one of the nation’s foremost experts on the science of arson and requested a review of the facts and circumstances surrounding the case.
The case finally went to trial before a jury in May, 1994.
Prior to the second trial, the bodies of the two children were exhumed for a second autopsy, and a medical examiner testified for the prosecution that he discovered what he believed were cut marks on the necks of both children, which could have been made by a tool that a roofer such as DiNicola was known to carry, a banana knife.
This claim was contradicted by another medical examiner, Dr. Cyril Wecht, who testified for the defense that the marks (which were not observed during the first autopsy) were probably artifacts from either the first autopsy or the embalming.
An inmate who had been incarcerated with DiNicola after his conviction testified that DiNicola admitted to him that he set the fire after having committed an unspecified “act” upon one of the children.
John Lentini testified for the defense that the fire originated in the living room and, although the exact cause was not demonstrated by the physical evidence, there was no evidence contradicting Louis DiNicola’s account.
Lentini determined that Pennsylvania fire investigators misinterpreted the heavy alligator charring on the floor of the den. The charring resulted from radiation and not the application of flammable liquids.
On May 23, 1994, after a 2-week trial, the jury acquitted DiNicola of all charges.
In 1998, DiNicola settled a federal civil rights lawsuit with the city of Erie for $22,000.
– Maurice Possley