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Robert Yell

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Firefighters and police in Russellville, Kentucky responded to a trailer fire at about 7 p.m. on September 11, 2004. There were two children inside the building. Two-year-old Cameron Yell was dead from smoke inhalation. Eleven-month-old Saralynn Yell was rescued but had extensive burns and respiratory injuries.

Robert Yell, the children’s father, immediately came under suspicion. Earlier in the day, he and the children’s mother, April Carpenter, had fought violently at the trailer after a day of drinking. Carpenter had then left for a friend’s house, and Yell left soon after that to go to the liquor store. The children stayed behind. Carpenter returned home and saw the trailer on fire. Yell, then 27, also came back and was belligerent at the scene and told a police officer that he hoped Carpenter had gotten the kids out. Later, he told other officers, “If that bitch had done to you what she did to me, you would have done the same fucking thing.”

The Kentucky State Police assisted in the investigation of the fire, and they worked under the theory that the fire had been intentionally set. Yell’s hands and clothing tested negative for accelerants. In addition, upon learning of his son’s death, Yell was so distraught that he had to be sedated. He maintained that the most likely source of the fire was a cigarette butt that was misplaced during the fight he had with Carpenter.

Despite that evidence, the examination of the charred inside of the trailer led the arson investigators to believe that Yell had set the fire. First, they reported three separate burn holes in the trailer, which they said suggested three points of ignition. These burn areas all were deep, with U or V-shaped patterns, and with shiny surfaces, which the investigators said indicated the use of an accelerant. In addition, investigators used an “accelerant-detecting canine,” or ADC, named PJ.

The dog's handler said PJ had alerted on several spots in the trailer, including the burn holes. Separately, a neighbor reportedly told investigators that he had seen Yell toss a lighter in the backyard.

Yell was indicted on October 28, 2004 and charged with first-degree arson, capital murder, attempted murder, fourth-degree assault, resisting arrest, menacing, third-degree terroristic threatening, public intoxication, third-degree assault, second-degree disorderly conduct, and being a first-degree persistent felony offender. Initially, the state considered seeking the death penalty but later dropped that plan.

​​On Feb. 8, 2006, Yell tried to plead guilty in Logan County Circuit Court to reduced charges in exchange for a 25-year sentence. The judge considered this to be a so-called “Alford plea,” where a defendant pleads guilty while maintaining his innocence​​. ​Although Yell said he had been "reckless" in causing the fire, he was unable to state a factual basis for the plea to first-degree arson, a crime that required intent.

Yell’s trial began later that month. The state’s case was built around the findings of four arson investigators. They were a tight-knit group, veterans of many trials, and their collective testimony was unequivocal that the fire had been intentionally set.

Of the four, the key witness was Buster Cannon, PJ’s handler, who said the dog had detected the presence of accelerants at several places in the trailer. Although separate tests failed to confirm PJ’s alerts, Cannon said the fact that the machines didn’t find those chemical traces didn’t mean they didn’t exist: PJ’s nose was simply more sensitive than the laboratory equipment.

Yell testified and denied setting the fire. Carpenter also testified and said Yell wouldn’t have set the fire. She said he loved his children more than anything and never would have hurt them. The jury found Yell guilty on February 21, 2006 of first-degree arson, second-degree manslaughter, and first-degree assault. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison. During his appeals, Yell would point out that the verdict was inconsistent, as the first-degree arson conviction required meant he had acted intentionally while the manslaughter conviction meant he hadn’t.

Yell’s first appeal argued that Judge Tyler Gill erred in allowing the state to present the canine evidence, which lacked scientific validity. His attorneys had unsuccessfully tried to suppress this evidence before trial, noting that the lab tests were negative. In 2007, The Kentucky Supreme Court rejected Yell’s appeal. Relying on an opinion from earlier that year, the court said there was no need for a scientific explanation of a dog’s superior sense of smell; it all hinged on the “dog handler's personal observations of the dog’s actions relative to his experience with and training of the dog.”

Yell would then file two separate motions to vacate his conviction. The first claimed ineffective counsel. The second claimed the arson investigators had committed perjury by overstating their confidence in their findings. Judge Gill denied both. Although the judge had voiced deep skepticism about the guilty verdict, he said that there was no evidence that the investigators lied. In dismissing Yell’s claim of ineffective counsel, Gill wrote: “Any competent lawyer would have had difficulty dealing with this array of expert witnesses who believe so strongly in the infallibility of their own conclusions.”

In 2016, Yell filed a motion to vacate his conviction. He was represented by Kentucky’s Department of Public Advocacy, which had obtained a grant from the Kentucky Innocence Project to hire a forensic arson expert named Paul Bieber. Since his conviction, the reliability of arson investigations had been called into question. Many arson investigations, while well-meaning, were based on anecdotal evidence and outdated theories of how fires start, how they spread, and how they could be detected.

Bieber’s report attacked the testimony of the prosecution’s four expert witnesses. The investigators had said the three deep floor burns indicated three separate places of ignition. But that conclusion was based on the trailer not having reached a “flashover,” the point where the room or rooms get so hot that items not near the flame combust. Bieber said his examination showed the trailer was in flashover, making it impossible to pinpoint where it had started. In addition, one of the first witnesses had testified that when he arrived on the scene, only the back bedroom was on fire, which contradicted the conclusion that there were three separate points of ignition.

The state’s witnesses had said the three deep burns in the floor were caused by an accelerant being poured in these areas. But Bieber said that was a false indicator, a marker for arson once widely accepted among investigators but now disproven. The more probable explanation was either debris falling from the ceiling during flashover or hotter burns created by ventilation from ducts and windows.

The canine handler’s testimony also was scrutinized in a new light. Bieber noted that accelerant-sniffing dogs have sensitive noses but are not very discriminating. They can alert on substances that may be chemically similar to accelerants but are not accelerants. PJ had also never been trained on lighter fluid, the suspected accelerant in the trailer fire. The motion also argued that Cannon’s handling method was biased toward confirmation; each time PJ alerted, she received a treat. Yell’s attorneys also noted that the Canine Accelerant Detection Association, the professional organization for ADC handlers, issued a statement in 2012 that said it did not support handlers testifying in cases unless the dog’s results were independently confirmed in a laboratory.

The Innocence Network also filed an amicus brief on Yell’s behalf.

An evidentiary hearing was held on December 2 and December 13, 2016, and Judge Gill ordered a new trial for Yell on December 28. In his order, he wrote: “It is now objectively clear that the opinions given by these four experts at trial were, viewed in the most favorable light, based on obsolete and erroneous techniques ‘rules of thumb’ and assumptions and none can be relied upon as true.”

Yell was released from prison on January 26, 2017, while Gail Guiling, the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Logan County, appealed. But in February 2018, the Kentucky attorney general’s office filed to dismiss that appeal after undertaking what it called “a thorough review of the trial-court record.”

Yell’s attorneys then filed a motion to dismiss, which was supported by the newly elected commonwealth’s attorney, Paul Neil Kerr. Gill, the judge who had presided over his conviction and all the previous motions to vacate and dismiss, granted the motion to dismiss on March 14, 2019.

Krista Dolan, Yell’s attorney at the time he received a new trial, said, “While the fire in which Mr. Yell lost his son was a horrible tragedy, it was not a crime. The law always lags behind science, but we are happy that here, science prevailed.”

In March 2020, Yell filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/27/2019
Last Updated: 3/22/2020
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Additional Convictions:Assault, Arson
Reported Crime Date:2004
Sentence:52 years
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No