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Daniel Carnevale

Other Allegheny County, Pennsylvania exonerations
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In the early morning hours of January 17, 1993, a fire erupted in the basement mechanical room of the Columbia Apartments building and quickly spread to the adjacent Regal Apartments building on Taylor Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Before firefighters could arrive, 22-year-old Christopher Stahlman jumped from a third-floor window. He died of a head injury suffered in the fall. Twenty-year-old Linda McCutcheon, a friend of Stahlman’s, was rescued but not before she suffered serious burns to the left side of her body. Another resident, 63-year-old Florence Lyczko was found dead from smoke inhalation. Two days later, as arson investigators dug through the rubble, they found the body of 31-year-old Anita Emery, who perished from smoke inhalation. Twenty-nine residents escaped unharmed.

On January 22, 1993, the Allegheny County Arson squad requested assistance from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). On January 25, the ATF’s investigation began and two days later the fire was declared to have been the result of arson. It was one of the deadliest arson fires in Pittsburgh history.

A composite sketch was created by police based on a description of a man seen near the Columbia Apartments on the night of the fire. The sketch was believed to resemble a former maintenance man for the building who was no longer employed because he and the building’s owner had a falling out. Police reports said there were rumors he had been fired for stealing and others said the man had been let go after he discovered his wife and the owner were having an affair. The owner was cleared as a suspect after it was determined he took a financial loss on the building.

Several witnesses reported a white man standing among spectators, although their descriptions differed wildly. He was said to be in his 20s with a medium or large build, standing from 5 feet 8 inches to six feet three inches tall, weighing from 150 to 190 pounds, with either long or shoulder-length hair that was either black or blondish-brown. The man was said to have rotten or missing teeth and was wearing either a waist-length coat, a green army jacket, or a short brown leather bomber jacket.

A witness, Christopher Palimere, told police he was coming back from dropping his girlfriend off at work that morning and found two sets of keys and some blank checks from the Columbia Apartments building lying in the street. He turned them over to the police.

On March 2, 1993, Keith Platek and Tammi Mancini reported to police that 29-year-old Daniel Carnevale had been staying with them for several weeks. While cleaning the room where Carnevale was staying, Mancini found checks from the Columbia Apartments. Carnevale, who used drugs and had prior convictions for retail theft, voluntarily went to the police where he was interviewed for more than three hours. He admitted he had stolen checks from mailboxes located in the courtyard of the Columbia Apartments building, but denied setting the fire or ever going into the building.

Carnevale said that on the night of the fire, he was at the Luna Bar in the North Oakland section of the city until about 2:30 a.m. After that, he went to a snack shop on Liberty Avenue, where he had a conversation with a waitress named Joy. Carnevale said that when he left the snack shop, he heard sirens and saw fire trucks arriving at the Columbia Apartments. He said he watched with an acquaintance and then went back to where he was staying. He agreed to give police his jacket for testing and said he would come back if police needed to talk to him again.

However, Carnevale was not contacted again. And police never attempted to interview anyone at the Luna Bar or the snack shop. They never tried to find the man Carnevale said he watched the fire with, even though police had the man’s full name. Platek and Mancini asked Carnevale to move out and several weeks later, he left for California where a friend who worked on a farm promised him a job. Carnevale remained there until he was arrested on August 12, 2006 and brought back to Pittsburgh.

Earlier that year, Pittsburgh police cold-case detectives reopened the investigation. By that time, all of the physical evidence had been destroyed. Advertisements were placed in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review every two weeks requesting information. Sandra Evans saw one of the ads and told police that her brother, Sean, had information about the fire.

Sean Evans told police that he saw Carnevale leaving the courtyard of the Columbia Apartments building on the night of the fire. Evans said he reported the sighting to police, who subsequently interviewed him. However, there were no reports in the police file of any contact with Evans.

Based on Evans’s statement, police obtained a warrant. On August 12, Carnevale was arrested in El Dorado County while returning home from work. By this time, Carnevale had quit using drugs, had a job at a lumber mill, and was married. He was brought back to Allegheny County and charged with three counts of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, arson, and burglary.

On March 1, 2007, Sean Burns, an inmate at the Allegheny County Jail, told authorities that Carnevale had confessed to him that he set the fire. Based on Burns’s statement, authorities believed Carnevale set the fire to destroy video cameras that might have recorded him stealing from the mailboxes located outside the apartment building.

In August 2007, Carnevale went to trial in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Sean Evans testified that he saw Carnevale coming out of the Columbia building just prior to the fire breaking out. Evans testified that he had no trouble recognizing Carnevale as he had known him since he was little and the lighting in the courtyard was good. Evans also testified that he reported “by name” seeing Carnevale to law enforcement that very night.

ATF agent William Petraitis testified that he had investigated the fire and determined it was arson. He testified from memory as all the physical evidence and investigative files kept by the ATF were said to have been destroyed. He said that the presence of unusually intense “low-burn” patters found in the basement mechanical room and in the hallway immediately to the right of the room indicated that an accelerant had been poured there at floor level.

Petraitis said he eliminated the hot water heaters in the mechanical room as a possible cause of the fire because the heaters were not severely damaged. He also said that the intensity of the fire—as indicated by the consumption of a basement door, save for only the metal door knob—was evidence that the fire was intentionally set with an accelerant. He said he had eliminated all natural and accidental causes, leaving arson as the only possible explanation.

Petraitis told the jury that an accelerant-sniffing dog named Onyx had alerted to the presence of accelerants in numerous areas. Fourteen samples were collected and sent to the ATF lab for analysis along with a five gallon can of lacquer thinner. Evidence was presented that showed that 10 of the samples were negative. However, a charred piece of wood tested positive for gas, heavy petroleum distillate and lacquer thinner. Two concrete and stone samples from the mechanical room testified positive for gas and lacquer thinner compounds. And the intact bottom portion of a consumed door was positive for lacquer thinner.

Burns testified that on December 27, 2006, Carnevale spoke to his wife on the telephone from the Allegheny County Jail. He said that after the call, Carnevale was upset and said he “didn’t mean to hurt those people” and “didn’t mean to kill those people.” However, Burns’s account conflicted with other evidence. He said Carnevale admitted setting the fire in the apartment building office—not the basement mechanical room—because that’s where Carnevale believed video surveillance equipment would be located.

At the time, Burns was in jail facing one count of rape of a child, two counts of indecent sexual intercourse with a person under 13, one count of aggravated indecent assault, and underlying misdemeanor charges—all carrying a combined maximum sentence of 110 to 220 years in prison. He also was facing weapons charges in an unrelated case that carried a maximum sentence of 14 to 28 years in prison.

When asked by the prosecutor whether any promises had been made to him in exchange for his testimony, Burns said, “I wouldn’t consider being locked down 23/7 special treatment.”

The prosecutor continued, “You indicated that no promises were made to you by the detectives or by myself for your testimony today, correct?”

“No, ma’am,” Burns said. “My case—my large case, I was found not guilty by a jury…back in June…And right now I got time served on what I have. There’s nothing really you could offer me.”

He said he only had two pending charges, both for weapons violations. Asked if he was getting any consideration from the prosecution “in terms of getting a good deal on that or getting out of jail on that,” Burns said, “They’re minor charges. I have time served. I got three weeks. I’ll be out.” He added that he had not received so much as a bond reduction.

Asked why he was coming forward, Burns said, “Because three people died for a hundred dollars. It’s ridiculous. I just can’t see it. If it was your mother, your daughter, your son, somebody—I’d want to know.”

Carnevale’s defense lawyer did not obtain an expert to review the ATF investigation of the blaze. No witnesses testified for the defense.

During closing argument, the prosecutor told the jury that Burns was a credible witness because he had nothing to gain from his testimony.

On August 30, 2007, the jury convicted Carnevale of three counts of second-degree murder, arson, aggravated assault, and burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In March 2010, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld Carnevale’s convictions. In 2011, a petition for post-conviction relief was filed citing new evidence. It alleged that David Dixon, an inmate who had been incarcerated with Burns, said that Burns admitted to him that he had concocted the statement about Carnevale admitting involvement in the fire. The petition also claimed that Burns had in fact received favorable treatment from the prosecution on his then pending charges: a nominal bond and a sentence of 14 months, well below the sentencing guideline of 36 to 48 months.

The petition was denied without a hearing and his appeal was denied.

In June 2013, Carnevale filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, which was denied in 2014. In 2016, the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the petition, ruling that it had to defer to prior rulings in the Pennsylvania courts. The court noted that there was no physical evidence or fingerprints on the container of lacquer thinner and the case relied upon “a jailhouse informant’s essentially uncorroborated testimony.”

The court declared, “Were we in the jury box at Carnevale’s trial, we very likely would have weighed the evidence against him differently than did the actual jury. And were we the trial court reviewing a challenge to the verdict, we would likely have concluded it was against the weight of the evidence. But we had neither of those roles and cannot assume them now.”

Meanwhile, in 2012, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project had agreed to examine his case. After a lengthy review, it commissioned the help of fire expert Douglas Carpenter, vice president of Combustion Science & Engineering, Inc., of Maryland. Carpenter looked at the case in light of advances in fire science since a ground-breaking report was published in 1992 outlining a scientific approach to fire investigation. The report, called NFPA 921, discredited numerous “theories” about the indicators of arson that were not based on science, but that investigators had used for decades, passing them down from one generation of arson investigators to the next.

Carpenter concluded that the ATF investigation was flawed. Petraitis’s “process of elimination” method “has been deemed wholly unreliable” and “has been expressly forbidden by the fire investigation community.”

Carpenter’s investigation determined that the cause of the fire was accidental and likely was the result of a malfunction in the boiler/heating system in the Regal Apartments. The system in the Regal Apartments was used to heat both the Regal and Columbia Apartments. Carpenter noted that several residents heard loud noises from the radiators, such as hissing and banging sounds, just prior to the fire. Since the steam pipes were routed through the buildings next to lumber, Carpenter said, there “is evidence in this case to form a valid fire cause hypothesis associated with ignition of building components by steam pipes.”

In June 2018, Pennsylvania Innocence Project attorneys Elizabeth DeLosa and Nilam Sanghvi filed a petition seeking to vacate Carnevale’s convictions. Susan Metcalfe and Eliza Smith of Potomac Law Group acted as pro bono co-counsel.

The prosecution opposed the petition, arguing that that none of the evidence was newly discovered and therefore the petition was time-barred. In August 2019, an evidentiary hearing was ordered, but not scheduled.

In September 2019, the prosecution learned that there was a note in the ATF file. The note indicated that, upon further investigation, the chemical analysis of the debris retrieved from the scene showing the presence of accelerants was “meaningless” because the amounts were so low or could have been produced by the fire itself.

As a result, the prosecution said it would not oppose the granting of a new trial. On December 17, 2019, Court of Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning vacated Carnevale’s convictions and ordered a new trial.

On March 16, 2020, the prosecution filed a motion to dismiss the charges. The following day, March 17, 2020, Judge Manning granted the motion and Carnevale was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 3/25/2020
State:Pennsylvania
County:Allegheny
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Arson, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1993
Convicted:2007
Exonerated:2020
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No