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Louis DiNicola

Other Arson Cases
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, 42-year-old Eugene Pitts.
After Sweet put the children to bed, she along with DiNicola and Jefferson drank beer and smoked marijuana. Later, 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. He yelled for Jefferson and Sweet to get out. DiNicola was able to help Jefferson’s mother, Cora, escape from the second floor, but 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, the police 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 police questioned Deborah Sweet at the hospital, 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, then returned, and the fire broke out later.
On March 26, 1980, DiNicola was charged with arson and three counts of murder.
At trial, Sweet testified 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 and contacted former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Clark then took over the appeal in the case.
On December 6, 1983, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed DiNicola's conviction. The court found that the jury had improperly heard testimony that when DiNocola was being interrogatied by police in October 1979, a prosecutor came into the interrogation room, and DiNicola had asked what the prosecutor thought of the case. The prosecutor had replied replied, “I think you did it.”
The court ruled that the evidence of the prosecutor's comment was improper opinion testimony and ordered a new trial.
DiNicola was released on bond on February 17, 1984, while awaiting a 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 prosecution the appealed that ruling. 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 that interview, she corroborated DiNicola’s version of what occurred at the time of the fire.
DiNicola’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case 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.
Meanwhile, Louis DiNicola’s younger brother, Ron, a first-year law student at Georgetown University Law School when Louis was arrested, had begun working on the case. 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.
In May 1994, a jury was empaneled and the case went to trial a second time.
A medical examiner testified for the prosecution that after the children's bodies were exhumed, he re-examined them. He said he discovered what he believed were cut marks on the necks of both children, which could have been made by a banana knife, a tool that a roofer such as DiNicola was known to carry.
This conclusion 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.
Edward Wayne Edwards, an inmate who had been incarcerated for an arson conviction, testified that he met DiNicola in prison after DiNicola was convicted. Edwards said that DiNicola admitted that he set the fire after having committed an unspecified “act” upon one of the children. In 2010, Edwards would plead guilty to four murders, two of them committed in 1977 and two committed in 1980.
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, Lentini testified.
On May 23, 1994, after a two 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

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Posting Date: 7/15/2012
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1979
Age at the date of reported crime:29
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No