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Anthony Kyles

Other arson exonerations
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Shortly after 6:30 a.m. on September 11, 1995, firefighters were summoned to 308 Chandler Street in Pontiac, Michigan. When they arrived, the front of the house was enveloped in smoke and flames. The fire was extinguished, but four of the eight residents perished.

Thirty-seven-year-old Robert Perry died, as did three of his children—one-year-old Demetrius, two-year-old Mercedes, and five-year-old Albert. Twenty-five-year-old Jacqueline Etchen, the mother of the children, escaped along with the other three of their children—four-year-old Renetia, five-year-old Ernest, and six-year-old Robert Jr.

Etchen told investigators that she and Perry were sleeping in a rear bedroom with Mercedes and Demetrius. The other children were sleeping in a bedroom at the front of the house. The gas in the home had been shut off, so the family was using an old electric space heater to heat the home. Etchen said Ernest woke her and Robert, saying that his room was cold. So Perry got up and turned on the space heater in that bedroom. Later Ernest returned to the back bedroom and told Perry and Etchen that his room was on fire.

Etchen said Perry went into the bedroom and was trying to extinguish the fire. She told investigators that as she ran into the dining room, “Robert was beating at the fire with something trying to put it out.” She said she yelled at him, asking what was on fire, and he told her it was the heater. Etchen fled out the rear door of the house with Robert Jr., Ernest, and Renetia.

She told investigators that the space heater had not been working until recently when a neighbor spliced a portion of an electrical cord from a lamp onto the heater.

Detective Stuart Trepte of the Pontiac Police Department was the lead investigator. He came to the scene two days later. Trepte dismissed the space heater as the cause because it did not appear to have extensive internal heat damage. He believed the fire must have originated on the porch because the porch was virtually destroyed.

Trepte concluded that because the fire burned very fast and very hot, it must have resulted from pouring gasoline throughout the front porch and down the stairs and was started from the front lawn by igniting the gasoline vapors via a disposable lighter or match. He stuck by this conclusion even though debris was submitted for testing and no evidence of any accelerants was detected.

More than three weeks later, on October 5, 1995, police arrested Keith Holliman and another man on charges of home invasion and burglary. While questioning Holliman, police asked if he had any information about the fire. Holliman said that he had overheard 27-year-old Anthony Kyles having a conversation during which Kyles said he was owed some money, and that he had a home burned. Holliman did not know who started the fire.

By that time, the fire was the subject of an investigation by a task force that included Pontiac police, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, and the FBI which had been formed to investigate murders in Pontiac.

Holliman was questioned numerous times, and ultimately he implicated Kyles. Holliman said that Etchen, who was a drug dealer, had been selling fake drugs, and customers were angry. Kyles, who also dealt drugs, was angry with Ethen as well. Holliman said he saw Kyles light a Molotov cocktail and toss it onto the front porch.

In July 1996, Hollimon pled guilty to four counts of home invasion and being a habitual offender. Although as a habitual offender, Hollimon was facing a possible life sentence in prison, he was sentenced to one year in the Oakland County Jail. His co-defendant, who also pled guilty, was sentenced to one to 20 years in prison and wound up serving two years.

Hollimon testified before a federal grand jury and said he saw Kyles ignite the fire. He told the grand jury he had taken and passed two polygraph examinations, indicating that he was truthful about Kyles’s involvement.

The case was turned over to the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, and on May 7, 1997, Kyles was charged with four counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of Robert, Demetrius, Mercedes, and Albert.

In October 1997, Kyles went to trial in Oakland County Circuit Court. Etchen testified and admitted that she had sold fake drugs. She said that a few days before the fire, Kyles threatened to blow up her house over a drug dispute.

Hollimon testified and said that he saw Kyles light a Molotov cocktail and throw it onto the porch. He said he came forward because “It troubled me and I was really bothered by it. I just wanted to get it off my chest.”

During cross-examination, Kyles’s defense attorney, Phyllis Marks asked Hollimon, "Isn't it true, Mr. Hollimon, that you made every bit of this up to try to save yourself from what was going to happen to you as a result of picking up another case while you were on parole?"

"No," Hollimon replied.

Trepte testified that the fire was arson. “There is no doubt in my mind that this fire was caused by the application of an accelerant to that front porch,” he told the jury.

During closing argument, Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Townsend told the jury that Holliman and his family were told authorities would help keep them safe, but nothing more.

"What benefit did Keith Hollimon get?" Townsend said. "None. What does he get out of this? Nothing."

"The evidence in this case is overwhelming to this defendant's guilt," Townsend said. "You have an eyewitness ... who saw it happen…[Hollimon] had no reason to come to this court and make that up."

On October 17, 1997, the jury, after four days of deliberation, convicted Kyles of four counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. At sentencing, Kyles maintained his innocence, stating: “I cannot apologize for something that I had no part in whatsoever. But I share in the pain of the family and their loss.”

His appeals were unsuccessful. In 2011, Kyles’s daughter, Ashley, who had been 12 when her father was convicted, wrote a letter to Hollimon, who was in prison at that time. She wrote that she was a friend “of someone you know.” She asked him to tell the truth about the fire. Hollimon replied and said he had lied and that “Til this day, I regret my part.”

Hollimon said police showed him photographs of the victims, promised him help with his home invasion case, and said he would get reward money. None of that information was disclosed to Kyles’s defense lawyer at the time of the trial.

“They gave me all the information about the fire, how it got started and then said I would get [a] reward,” Hollimon wrote. “I was upset about the senseless loss of life of the children which they told me was his fault.” He added that he had been “trying to right that wrong for years.”

In 2015, Kyles’s family sought help from Scott Lewis, a former investigative reporter who was working as a private investigator. Lewis obtained another affidavit from Hollimon reaffirming his prior recantation.

In 2016, Lewis filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking to allow an arson expert to examine the space heater that was in the evidence room of the Oakland County Sheriff's Office. In March 2016. Robert Trenkle, a fire forensics analyst, viewed the heater as well as investigative reports, photographs, transcripts, laboratory reports, and fire diagrams. He soon drafted a report and sent it to the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, which had begun investigating Kyles’s case at that time.

Trenkle’s report concluded: "This was an accidental fire and it most probably originated from the improperly rewired cord of the space heater."

Trenkle said the heater “was not sufficiently examined by investigators or turned over to an electrical engineer. Instead, the cursory evaluation of the space heater failed to properly inspect and analyze the space heater’s improperly wired cord.”

He said Trepte focused on “erroneous theories” and that the presumption of arson prompted Trepte to “quickly rule out the space heater based on insufficient data and without proper consideration of the improperly wired cord.”

The report said the "state's investigators committed a grave error by concluding this fire was arson," and that the conclusions were not based on proper scientific methodology as outlined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) protocols outlined in 1992 in a document called NFPA 921.

“Although the state’s investigators asserted large quantities of accelerants were distributed to intensify the fire, there was no accelerant residue detected in any of the samples submitted for chemical lab analysis,” Trenkle’s report noted. “This fact should have given pause and caused the investigators to reconsider the validity of their arson hypothesis.”

In addition to sending his own report to the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Trenkle also retained an electrical expert, Mike Mathews, to re-examine the heater. Mathews concluded, based on physical evidence, that the heater was still receiving power at the time it was attacked by flames. This finding supported Trenkle’s opinion that the fire started in the bedroom, and it undermined the prosecution theory that the fire started on the porch and immediately spread to the powerline and cut off power to the house.

After years of investigating the case, the Michigan Innocence Clinic approached the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in July 2021. As part of her own independent investigation, CIU Director Beth Greenberg Morrow sought out another expert opinion in April 2022.

On September 2, 2022, Dr. Greg Gorbett of Fire Dynamics Analysts issued a 92-page report that lambasted the original arson investigation and concluded that the space heater was the likely cause of the blaze. As part of his review, Gorbett also consulted with an electrical expert, who agreed with Mathews’s conclusion regarding the heater.

Gorbett noted that Trepte was untrained in how to evaluate the power supply cord on the space heater and how to interpret the damage to these conductors, so the heater was taken to the Michigan State Police Sterling Heights Crime Laboratory. Gorbett said the person who examined the heater for the prosecution “was also clearly untrained in how to analyze the heater and associated power cord, because it was reported that the laboratory ‘does not have the necessary tools for making a test on the heating elements themselves to determine the presence or not of electricity at the time they were subjected to the heat.’”

Gorbett said in his report that “there are no specialized tools needed to evaluate the power supply cord of the heater to determine if it was energized, it only requires the visible observation and tactile examination of the conductors. Even in the early 1990’s, it was understood by the fire investigation profession that the findings of localized melted copper on a power supply cord or within an appliance is evidence that the item was energized at the time of the fire. The only tool the laboratory may have needed is a simple multimeter, easily obtainable from any hardware store.”

“Detective Trepte’s conclusion that damage to the porch floor or the stairs was indicative of ignitable liquid use has no scientific basis and is wrong,” Gorbett reported. “Detective Trepte’s conclusion regarding an ignitable liquid accelerant being used as a trailer or as a Molotov cocktail lacks any scientific foundation, fails to follow the scientific method, is unreliable, and wrong,” the report said.

During interviews with the Michigan Innocence Clinic, Kyles denied setting the fire and denied threatening Ethen to burn down the house. He did say that he told Ethen’s brother that Ethen was endangering her family by selling fake drugs and allowing people to consume drugs in the house.

On October 12, 2022, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Daniel O’Brien signed an order vacating Kyles’s conviction. The order was submitted jointly by Morrow and Kyles’s attorney, Imran Syed, co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.

The order cited Hollimon’s recantations, including a recantation in 2022 with the CIU, as well as the reports of the fire investigators. “The October 1997 murder convictions of Defendant Anthony Kyles were obtained through the use of arson science and eyewitness testimony that have now been repudiated through new evidence,” the order said. “An independent expert retained in 2022 by the Conviction Integrity Unit concluded that the fire underlying this case cannot be classified as arson and was most likely caused by faulty wiring in an electric space heater.”

Kyles was then released. He had spent 24 years, 11 months, 26 days in prison since the day of his conviction. Trenkle was there to greet him–sporting a white beard and long hair. Trenkle had vowed not to shave or cut his hair until Kyles was released.

On October 26, 2022, Judge O’Brien signed an order dismissing the case.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/29/2022
Last Updated: 10/29/2022
State:Michigan
County:Oakland
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1995
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:27
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No