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William Haughey

Other New York CIU Exonerations
On the night of March 10, 2007, 35-year-old William Haughey discovered a fire in the ceiling of the bathroom in Smalley’s Inn, a tavern and restaurant in Carmel, New York. After a bartender smelled smoke, patrons began searching for the source. Once Haughey removed a bathroom ceiling tile and found smoldering items, the fire quickly was doused.

The following day, the owner of the inn, Anthony Porto, Jr., reported the fire to police and accused Haughey of setting it. After a fire investigator probed the debris and declared the fire was arson, Haughey was arrested and charged with arson and attempted criminal mischief.

Haughey went to trial in Putnam County Supreme Court in February 2008. Porto testified that before the fire was discovered, he had cursed at Haughey and ordered him out of the tavern for allegedly mistreating one of Porto’s friends--although he had not made this claim until six months after the fire.

Robert Geoghegan, the fire investigator who examined the scene, testified that the fire was incendiary in origin and that he had ruled out electrical or any other cause. Geoghegan said he found residue that appeared to be paper towels—suggesting that the fire was set with paper towels that were stuffed above the ceiling.

Haughey denied setting the fire and denied that Porto had cursed at him, suggesting that Porto had falsely testified about that incident to create a motive.

Other customers testified there were no harsh words between Haughey and anyone else, including Porto. The customers testified that Haughey and another patron looked elsewhere in the tavern after the bartender first smelled smoke. A surveillance video confirmed that Haughey went to another area of the restaurant and it was only after the bartender began pointing to a wall vent above the bathroom door that Haughey went into the bathroom and discovered the fire.

On February 15, 2008, the jury convicted Haughey of arson and attempted criminal mischief. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

While in prison, Haughey wrote numerous letters seeking legal help and asserting his innocence. Eventually, he wrote to Robert McMahon, commissioner of emergency services in Putnam County. McMahon asked retired fire marshal Paul Roncallo to review the case. Roncallo and another fire marshal, William Tulipane, concluded that the Geoghegan had botched the investigation, failed to preserve evidence and failed to adequately check areas that indicated that an electrical accident was the likely cause of the fire.

Haughey also reached out to the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for investigative help. The Foundation was created by Deskovic who was exonerated in 2006 after spending 16 years in prison in for a murder he did not commit.

In 2013, Haughey filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking to overturn his conviction. The petition alleged that his trial defense attorney had failed to provide him with an adequate legal defense by neglecting to hire a fire expert to challenge the prosecution’s evidence.

In January 2016, Robert Tendy was elected District Attorney of Putnam County. He formed a Conviction Integrity Review unit and commissioned a re-examination of Haughey’s case. In May 2016, Tendy appeared in U.S. District Court and asked that Haughey’s writ be granted and the conviction vacated.

In a motion stating that the prosecution would “unequivocally” join in Haughey’s petition to vacate his conviction, Tendy said that his re-investigation included retaining another fire investigator to look into the fire. That investigator agreed that there was no evidence that fire was arson.

“In this case, post-trial, every consulted expert—including the one consulted by the Putnam County District Attorney’s Office—concluded that the origin of the fire could not be determined,” Tendy said in the motion. “Therefore, there could not be an arson conviction. Furthermore, there was ample evidence that an investigation at the time by an arson expert might very well have determined that the cause of the fire was electrical.”

Tendy also said that a number of photographs taken by the prosecution’s original fire investigator may not have been disclosed to Haughey’s defense lawyer prior to trial. Tendy said it was “unclear” whether the photographs were turned over, but that “they were certainly not made use of by defense counsel at trial. And they were certainly exculpatory had they been examined by a competent expert.”

The photographs would have shown that the space above the dropped ceiling where Haughey was accused of setting the fire was not connected to a wall vent where customers and the bartender saw smoke and flames. This would have shown that Geoghegan’s testimony “was invalid,” Tendy’s motion said.

On May 9, 2016, after Tendy filed the motion, Haughey was released on bond.

On May 19, 2016, Tendy and Haughey’s lawyer signed an agreed order of dismissal noting the opinions of the fire experts that the fire was not arson. Moreover, the order stated, “Nothing the defendant did was different than what others did in the bar: others were smoking, others used the bathroom, others began to search for the origin of the fire and everyone eventually realized it was coming from the smoke-eater vent which appeared to be accessible through the bathroom ceiling tiles….(Haughey) was the first to stand on the toilet to push up a ceiling tile, but anyone could have done this; he just did it first.”

In effect, it was agreed, Haughey had been convicted and sentenced to prison for attempting to extinguish the fire—not set it. “Based on the entire record of his habeas corpus proceeding…the parties agree that (Haughey) has established by clear and convincing evidence that he is actually innocent,” the order said.

On May 23, Haughey’s conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed. Subsequently, Haughey was awarded compensation in the New York Court of Claims. In March 2018, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation. The lawsuit was settled in 2023, with Haughey receiving $3 million.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/31/2016
Last Updated: 3/14/2024
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Arson
Additional Convictions:Misdemeanor
Reported Crime Date:2007
Sentence:10 years
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No