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Jacqueline Latta

Other Arson Exonerations with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
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On February 14, 1989, a fire broke out in the one-story rental home of 26-year-old Roger Latta and his 27-year-old wife, Jacqueline, in Hanna, Indiana. Both escaped, but their two-year-old son, Brad, died in his bedroom.

Almost immediately, fire officials concluded the fire was intentionally set based on burn patterns on the floors of the house, which suggested to them that an accelerant had been poured and set ablaze.

During questioning, Roger said that he tried to rescue his son, but was unable to reach him due to the flames and smoke—a claim authorities discredited because he had insufficient injuries that suggested a rescue attempt. He ended the interrogation by asking for an attorney.

An Indiana state police trooper questioned Jacqueline Latta. During the 10-hour interrogation, she told the trooper that she believed the death of her son was her fault and that she was angry.

The insurance company that issued a policy on the home sent an investigator who also concluded the fire was arson.

Roger and Jacqueline were arrested on May 25, 1989 and charged with murder.

They went on trial in LaPorte County Circuit Court in March 1990. The prosecution presented testimony from the state fire investigator as well as the insurance company investigator. The state trooper who interrogated Jacqueline testified that she admitted setting the fire—not to kill her son, but because she was angry.

Samples of debris from the fire had been sent to a private forensics laboratory used by the insurance company instead of to the Indiana State Crime Laboratory. Analysts testified that tests on the debris showed the presence of an accelerant that was consistent with charcoal lighter fluid found in a plastic container in the home.

Jacqueline and Roger were represented by the same defense attorney. When the prosecution introduced Jacqueline’s statement, the defense attorney suggested by his questions on cross-examination that Roger had stopped speaking to police and asked for an attorney because he was attempting to protect Jacqueline.

The defense presented evidence that a fire had broken out in the attic of the home about a month earlier and had been quickly extinguished. The cause of that fire was determined to be electrical, according to the evidence.

During his closing argument to the jury, the defense attorney suggested, in essence, that Roger was not culpable, but that perhaps his wife was guilty.

On April 4, 1990, the jury convicted Roger and Jacqueline of murder. They were each sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld their convictions on appeal.

In 1992, a post-conviction petition was filed on behalf of Jacqueline. The petition alleged that the couple’s trial lawyer had a conflict of interest because he represented two co-defendants in a single murder trial, and that he provided Jacqueline with an inadequate legal defense, as evidenced by his suggestions to the jury that Roger was trying to protect his wife and that she might well be guilty.

The petition was amended several times over the next several years to include evidence that showed the private forensics laboratory tests on the fire debris did not find any traces of the particular charcoal lighter fluid that was identified by prosecution as the source of the fire. In addition, John DeHaan, a fire investigation expert hired by the defense, concluded that the arson determination was not supported by evidence and that the likely cause of the fire was an accident caused by a space heater (a model that had since been recalled by the manufacturer) that ignited the curtains in Brad’s room.

The petition for a new trial was denied by a LaPorte County Circuit Court Judge in 1998.

In January 2000, the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision and ordered a new trial for Jacqueline. The court held that the prosecution testimony about Jacqueline’s confession “directly conflicted” with the joint defense. “An actual conflict of interest arose between (Jacqueline) Latta and Roger because Roger stood to gain significantly by (defense) counsel advancing an argument that Roger was attempting to cover-up the actions of (Jacqueline),” the court ruled.

In March 2001, the Indiana Supreme Court upheld the appeals court ruling. The court noted that other issues—such as the defense lawyer’s failure to offer evidence that there was no insurance on the Lattas' son’s life after a police officer testified that Jacqueline had said there was such a policy, and the significance of scientific evidence that the fire was not started with charcoal lighter fluid—“can be addressed on retrial.”

Jacqueline was released on bond in June 2001. In August 2001, LaPorte Circuit Court Judge Robert Gilmore, ruling on a post-conviction petition filed on behalf of Roger, vacated Roger’s conviction as well and Roger was also released on bond.

On August 23, 2002, the charges were dismissed. LaPorte County Prosecutor Rob Beckman, citing a re-investigation of the fire applying modern standards and techniques of fire investigation, said the blaze was probably caused by the faulty space heater.

Roger and Jacqueline filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from LaPorte County police and prosecutors, the insurance company and the private laboratory, but the suit was dismissed.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 7/13/2016
State:Indiana
County:LaPorte
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1989
Convicted:1990
Exonerated:2002
Sentence:50 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Female
Age at the date of crime:27
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No