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 arson. Based on a tip, police arrested Eric Jackson-Knight.
According to police, 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 had 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, a fellow inmate testified that Jackson-Knight had confessed to setting the supermarket fire while they were both at Riker’s Island. In December 1980, a jury convicted Jackson-Knight of murder and arson, and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life.
After the conviction, Jackson-Knight’s case was reviewed in preparation for a civil suit. In the process, many people became convinced that Jackson-Knight was innocent, including city officials, contractors who were working to expand the supermarket, and the attorney who represented the firefighters’ families in a successful civil suit against the store. 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. Prosecutors also withheld a statement by a police detective saying that he believed the fire department had planted evidence of arson, a memo showing that the fire marshal had given false testimony at trial about some aspects of the investigation, a 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.” Jackson-Knight was released, 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. The jury acquitted Jackson-Knight of all charges.
- Stephanie Denzel