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Adam Gray

Other Exonerations with Debunked Arson Science
In the early morning hours of March 25, 1993, a fire broke out on the rear stairs of a two-flat apartment building on the south side of Chicago, Illinois.  Second-floor residents Peter McGuiness, 54, and his sister, Margaret Mesa, 74, died.

Residents on the first floor escaped, including 14-year-old Kasey Paris, her parents, and her brother. Paris told police that she had recently been threatened by 14-year-old Adam Gray, who was angry that Paris was dating Gray’s best friend. Karrie Kelly told police she saw a teenager running away from the back of the building carrying a white bag.  She later identified Gray in a photographic lineup, although she knew Gray and had not mentioned him by name in her first interview with police.

Police quickly located Gray and took him to a police station.  After seven hours of interrogation, Gray confessed to setting the fire because he was angry at Kasey Paris. In the confession, Gray said that he bought gasoline in a milk jug, dumped it on the rear stairs, and ignited it with a lighter. Not long after, Gray recanted his confession, saying he finally yielded to police pressure and admitted he set the fire.

After police got the confession, they went back to the scene and found a milk jug, which they sent to the crime lab for testing.

Gray was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and aggravated arson. He went to trial in Cook County in April 1996. The prosecution introduced his confession as well as the testimony of store clerk Brenda Thomas.  Thomas testified that she sold gasoline to Gray before the fire—although she said she put the gas into a red gasoline can, not a milk jug. Kasey Paris testified that Gray had threatened her, and Karrie Kelly testified that she saw a teenager carrying a white bag run from the back of the building just before the fire erupted. Kelly identified Gray as the youth she saw. The prosecution contended in closing argument that what Kelly saw was the milk jug and that Gray had brought the gas to the site of the fire in that jug.

A crime scene analyst testified that tests on the milk jug revealed the presence of a “high-boiling petroleum distillate.” The analyst also testified that tests were performed on debris and revealed the presence of a “middle through high” petroleum distillate. There was no testimony explaining what petroleum distillates were.

Two arson investigators testified that they found “alligator charring” and deep burn patterns after the blaze was extinguished.  They concluded that those were signs that the fire had burned very hot and fast and was started with an accelerant.

On April 26, 1996, the jury convicted Gray of two counts of first-degree murder and aggravated arson. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In the ensuing years, arson investigators and scientists began to show that evidence arson investigators had traditionally relied on was scientifically invalid, including the determination that alligator charring was evidence that an accelerant had been used.

In 2006, Thomas, who had identified Gray as the person who bought gasoline shortly before the fire, recanted her identification. She said she was pressured by police to identify Gray and first identified someone else from a photographic array.  After police told her she was wrong, however, she eventually picked Gray. The police failed to disclose to Gray’s trial lawyer that Thomas had initially picked someone else.

In 2007, Kasey Paris also recanted her testimony that Gray had threatened her. Paris said Gray never directly threatened her, and that her testimony was the result of being “coached” by police and prosecutors to portray herself as the “good girl, victimized by Adam Gray.” Paris said that Gray did not intimidate or frighten her.

Defense attorneys for Gray consulted experts who re-examined the case.  The experts concluded that the testimony about evidence of arson in the case had been debunked and did not prove arson.

The defense experts also reported that petroleum distillates are not gasoline, are nowhere near as flammable as gasoline, and actually are “terrible” accelerants. The distillates found are commonly found in fire debris because they are present in “innumerable household products such as wood treatments and solvents” and therefore did not prove that the fire was started with an accelerant. Moreover, the defense experts said, the substance found in the jug differed from the substances found in the fire debris. The bench notes of the crime lab analyst—which were never disclosed to the defense—showed that no gasoline had been found in the debris or the milk jug.

Gray’s lawyers sought a new trial based on the new evidence and the failure of Gray’s trial defense attorney to consult an expert regarding the arson evidence.  In 2016, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit began its own re-investigation of the case. After consulting other arson experts, the prosecution agreed that Gray should be granted a new trial, although the prosecution said they would seek to retry Gray because they believed he was responsible for the fire.

Even though the prosecution agreed that Gray was entitled to a new trial, in November 2016, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Angela Petrone denied Gray’s motion for a new trial.

On May 3, 2017, the prosecution and lawyers for Gray presented a joint motion to vacate the conviction and dismiss the case. “Scientific advances since the time of trial have proven that the fire investigators’ testimony—while based on beliefs that were widely held in 1996—was erroneous under current scientific knowledge,” the motion said. Gray was released that day.

In 2018, Gray was awarded a certificate of innocence and he was awarded $226,500 in state compensation. In April 2018, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking damages from the Chicago Police Department.

In May 2023, a federal jury awarded Gray $27 million in damages, one of the largest jury awards to a single exoneree in Chicago history.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/12/2017
Last Updated: 5/25/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1993
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:14
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No