On September 30, 1996, a fire broke out in the photo processing business owned by Humberto Correia in Taunton, Massachusetts.
The blaze was quickly extinguished by firefighters, who then determined that Correia, 47, had set the fire to collect $280,000 in insurance proceeds—although the insurance company’s independent investigation turned up no evidence the fire was intentionally set.
Correia was indicted by a federal grand jury on July 20, 2000 on charges arson, mail fraud and using fire to commit a felony. Federal prosecutors alleged he used the insurance proceeds to pay off his home and business mortgages and then sold the burned building.
On January 30, 2002, Correia was convicted in U.S. District Court following a six-day trial. The prosecution presented evidence that Correia had suffered financial difficulties for five years before the fire broke out.
The defense argued the fire was the result of electrical malfunction, but presented no evidence to support the claim, called no arson expert and failed to call the insurance company arson investigator who determined the fire was not arson.
Facing a sentence of 15 to 45 years in prison and a $1 million fine, Correia’s lawyers filed a one-page motion for a new trial.
On February 8, 2002, before sentencing, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel granted the motion, ruling that Correia’s defense team, led by James Fagan, a Massachusetts state representative from Taunton, had provided inadequate legal assistance.
The judge found that Fagan had failed to question witnesses about the possibility that the fire had started from an unknown cause. The judge also criticized Fagan and his co-counsel, William Brown, for failing to object when the prosecution presented evidence of Correia’s debts and for failing to show his assets.
The judge found that Correia’s lawyers failed to try to rebut the prosecution claim that Correia shut off the alarm system before the trial. Evidence produced after the trial showed that the building had a burglar alarm, but no fire alarm system.
During the hearing Fagan, the chairman of the Massachusetts House Post Audit and Oversight Committee, admitted he had provided inadequate legal assistance at Correia’s trial.
On September 1, 2004, Correia, defended by a new legal team, was acquitted at his retrial.
– Maurice Possley