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William Amor

Other Arson Exonerations
On September 10, 1995, 39-year-old William Amor and his 18-year-old wife, Tina, decided to go to a drive-in movie. Amor left their Naperville, Illinois condominium at 6:15 p.m. to get the car ready. Tina left at 6:20 p.m., but came back in to get her cigarettes and left at about 6:30 p.m.

Ten minutes later, at 6:40 p.m., Tina’s mother, 40-year-old Marianne Miceli, called 911 and reported that there was a fire in the condominium and that she could not get out through the front door or the patio door because a chair was blocking her way. Miceli had been left partially disabled as child after she was struck by a car and had difficulty getting around. Firefighters found her unconscious in a third-floor bedroom. She died of smoke inhalation. Amor, his wife, and Miceli all smoked cigarettes.

Miceli’s brother-in-law was a captain in the Naperville fire department. The investigation immediately focused on Amor—whose marriage to Tina in 1995 had been looked upon with disfavor by many of her family members.

Police said that Amor began to change his account of what happened during several interviews over the next few weeks. On September 15, 1995, after denying any involvement in the fire, Amor said he accidentally spilled part of a bottle of vodka on newspapers near the swivel chair where fire investigators suspected the fire began. He said there was a cigarette in a nearby ashtray when he left the living room to get ready for the movie.

In interviews that began on October 3 and culminated on October 4, 1995, Amor’s account evolved to an admission that he dropped a cigarette onto the vodka-soaked papers, saw the papers “sizzle and smoke,” and that he didn’t care what happened.

Police believed Amor set the fire to collect on property insurance, although neither he nor his wife was the beneficiary.

Although Amor recanted the confession almost immediately afterward, he was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated arson.

In September 1997—two years after the fire—Amor went to trial in DuPage County Circuit Court. His defense attorney, Gloria Najera, argued the confession was false—a lit cigarette was incapable of igniting vodka-soaked newspapers—and that the confession was the result of 15 hours of interrogation.

Amor was an unemployed alcoholic who suffered from depression. His wife, Tina, whom he married in 1995, had filed divorce papers on October 3, 1995—the day before he confessed. Moreover, Miceli’s sister was the beneficiary of the insurance policy—not Amor’s wife. Police got Amor to the point where “he would confess to the bombing of Pearl Harbor to get them to stop (the interrogation),” Najera said.

The prosecution aired Amor’s tape-recorded confession for the jury. “It’s my fault. I did it. I started the fire,” Amor said.

The prosecution also presented testimony from fire investigators Lt. Dave Ferreri as well as Special Agent Mitchell Kushner of the Illinois State Fire Marshall’s office. Both concluded that based on a V-pattern on the wall near the chair—the chair that Miceli said was on fire and blocking her exit—the fire started there and was incendiary.

The defense called Robert Sherwin, a fire investigator, who testified that Amor’s confession was false. Sherwin explained that when he tried to ignite a vodka-infused newspaper with a lit cigarette, the papers would not ignite. He said that even when he lit a dry section of the newspaper, the flame went out when it reached the portion that was wet with vodka. However, on cross-examination, Sherwin conceded it might be possible that the fire started that way.

On September 17, 1997, the jury convicted Amor of first-degree murder and aggravated arson. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison.

Amor’s appeals were unsuccessful. In 2012, however, the Illinois Innocence Project began re-investigating the case. In 2015, Lauren Kaeseberg, an attorney for the project, filed a petition seeking to vacate Amor’s convictions, asserting that the advances in arson science showed that the fire was likely an accident caused by a cigarette that was left smoldering in the chair that blocked Miceli’s exit.

Amor was granted an evidentiary hearing, which was held in December 2016. Doug Carpenter, an arson expert, testified that arson investigation has changed significantly since the mid-1990s. The methods employed by Ferreri and Kushner, he said, would now be considered improper in light of advances in the scientific study of fire and its behavior.

Arson expert John DeHaan testified that arson investigators had discarded the theory that a fire could start from a cigarette smoldering on newspapers soaked in vodka. He said that not all accidental causes had been eliminated at the time of the initial fire investigation and that the cause of the blaze should have been “undetermined.”

The prosecution called John Golder, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who testified that his examination of the case indicated the fire did start near the chair. He concluded the fire was incendiary because a smoldering fire takes much longer to develop—as long as 88 minutes on average from smoldering to flames for a polyurethane chair. The smell, he said, would have been detected much earlier than the 20 minutes or less from the time Tina left the apartment and when Miceli called 911.

Golder conceded, however, that it was impossible for the fire to have started the way Amor said it did. Golder agreed with DeHaan and Carpenter that a lit cigarette dropped on vodka-soaked newspapers would not cause an incendiary fire.

All three experts also agreed that modern fire science had discounted the belief that V-patterns “always” show a fire’s origin—the theory that Ferreri and Kushner had asserted at Amor’s trial.

They agreed that “flashover” occurred—a phenomenon where a fire becomes so hot that gas builds up and causes an explosion. After flashover, attempting to visually identify a fire’s ignition points is virtually impossible because the conflagration obliterates all that evidence.

In April 2017, DuPage County Circuit Court Judge Liam Brennan vacated Amor’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The judge noted that Ferreri and Kushner had identified the location of the fire’s ignition as near the chair because that was the area that sustained the most damage.

“(I)nvestigators no longer do that because there can be areas that have a higher burning rate at different stages of a fire,” Brennan wrote. “So a portion of the (apartment) that doesn’t get exposed to the fire until after flashover may suffer damage that looks like it was greater than the actual area of origin.”

“It is not disputed that flashover occurred in this case; the investigators in 1995 simply lacked the modern understanding of how flashover changes, obscures, and creates new patterns that necessarily affects the interpretation of patterns, and likewise the extent of fire damage and its investigative significance,” the judge ruled.

Judge Brennan also noted that the investigators in 1995 did not understand the impact of ventilation and that lack of understanding contributed to their misidentifying certain evidence as proof that the fire was started next to the chair.

The judge noted that “the lynchpin of the (prosecution’s) case at trial was the defendant’s confession, which the State and the defense experts today agree is scientifically impossible.”

On May 30, 2017, Amor was released on bond pending a retrial. He went to trial a second time in February 2018, represented by a team of lawyers from the Illinois Innocence Project, the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, and the law firm of Cozin O’Connor. Amor chose to have Judge Brennan hear the case without a jury.

On February 21, 2018, Judge Brennan acquitted Amor. "The court cannot determine William Amor is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," Brennan declared.

In April 2018, Amor filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and in May 2018, he filed a petition for a certificate of innocence. A DuPage County Circuit judge denied the petition in May 2019.

Amor died in January 2023.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/23/2018
Last Updated: 2/1/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Arson
Reported Crime Date:1995
Sentence:45 years
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No