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Harold Staten

Other Arson Exonerations
In the early morning of October 30, 1984, a fire broke out at a row house in the Glenwood neighborhood in north Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Four people were inside, asleep in the upstairs bedrooms. They were: 41-year-old Marion DeBose; her daughter, 17-year-old Juanita DeBose; Charles Harris, who was Marion’s boyfriend; and Robert Williams, a tenant. They all jumped to safety from second-story windows. Juanita broke her legs. The others suffered burns, with Harris, the last to leave, having burns over about 30 percent of his body.

A firefighter would later tell investigators that when Harris was being loaded into an ambulance, he turned to Marion DeBose and said, “Look what you did to me.” (Harris died from his injuries on November 2.)

By 4 a.m., the fire was out, and Lieutenant Thomas Schneiders, an assistant fire marshal with the Philadelphia Fire Department, began his investigation. Philadelphia firefighters would often “overhaul” a property, removing furniture, rugs, and other items before the marshals got to work. But because of the injuries and what would later be referred to as “the nature of the fire,” Schneiders investigated while the overhauling also took place.

Schneiders said the most extensive damage was in the front vestibule, but the fire had traveled up a hallway and to the second floor, where a second fire burned in a back bedroom.

Several firefighters reported smelling gasoline while they battled the blaze. Schneiders would later testify that he didn’t smell gasoline. Within hours after starting his investigation, Schneiders told detectives with the Philadelphia Police Department that the fire was caused “by an open flame being applied to an accelerant.”

The police department’s laboratory quickly conducted testing on floorboards from the vestibule. On October 31, 1984, the lab reported it did not detect the presence of volatile flammable vapors in the samples provided.

Pursuing an arson investigation, the police interviewed the fire’s victims and neighbors. Marion DeBose said she didn’t know anybody who would want to set fire to her house. She also mentioned that Williams had had a problem with a man in the summer, but she didn’t know what it was about. By then, there was neighborhood scuttlebutt that 31-year-old Harold Staten, an exterminator, might have been involved in the blaze.

Police interviewed Juanita DeBose on November 2. Detectives brought up Staten’s name without prompting and asked Juanita what he was mad about. According to the police notes, Juanita said that a month earlier, Staten left a box with several cans of roach spray at the house. Juanita said that he returned later that day, found four containers were missing, and demanded $14 for those cans. A neighbor named Howard Wray gave a similar account of a man complaining to Harris and Williams that they owed him money for bug spray. Wray could not identify the man.

Police interviewed 17-year-old Annette McCurry on November 7. She lived across the street and down the block from the DeBose house. McCurry said that she and her boyfriend, Dwayne Griffin, had just come home from a disco when they heard someone outside yelling about their legs hurting. Griffin ran out to help Juanita DeBose, McCurry said.

McCurry said she did not see Staten on the street either before, during, or after the fire. But McCurry said she had heard from others, principally her brother, that Staten told Harris he was going to “burn it down” if he didn’t get his $14. She also said that she had heard that Staten had denied starting the fire.

The investigation stalled. Schneiders finished his report on February 14, 1985. “A careful physical examination … revealed a discernible flammable liquid pattern on the floor at the area of origin,” which was the vestibule, he wrote. The report did not mention the results of the laboratory analysis of the floor samples, but it said flammable liquid was poured and then lit, and the fire was “intentionally set.”

A week later, the police interviewed Staten. He acknowledged his dispute with Williams about the pesticide but said that he had learned before the fire that someone else took the material, and he apologized to Williams. Staten gave the police the names of the men, Carl Jones and Larry Holliday, who Staten said had told him that they had taken the roach spray.

Staten said on the night of the fire, he had gone to a speakeasy, met a woman, and spent the night with her at his grandmother’s house. He also said that his extermination solution was made from the pesticide Dursban and was not flammable. Police released Staten.

Again, the investigation stalled. Nearly a year later, on January 3, 1986, police interviewed Ernest Pleasant, who knew both Staten and Harris. Pleasant said that a few weeks after the fire, he was hanging out with Alphonso White, Ike Wallace, and Staten, when Wallace started teasing Staten, saying “I heard you got a body.” Pleasant said Staten was still upset that he never got paid the money he was owed.

According to Pleasant’s statement, “I said to him that word is out that you did that man and Harold then told me ‘Yeah I did it. I did it’ then he walked off. Everybody around there know Harold did it.”

The police interviewed Wallace. In his version, Wallace confronted Staten and said he knew that he started the fire. Staten denied starting the fire but expressed little sympathy over Harris’s death.

The investigation gathered steam as the police re-interviewed witnesses.

McCurry was interviewed again on March 13, 1986. Now, she said that after coming home from the disco she had looked out of her window and down the street and seen Staten leaning over the steps of the DeBose house and then holding open the mail slot while he held a can in his hand for a “few seconds to a minute.”She said Staten left and smoke began coming from the door “right away.”

When the police had interviewed Linda Leake on November 14, 1984, she had provided little information and said most of what she knew came from McCurry. Now, also on March 13, 1986, she said that she was with Harris on the day of the fire when Staten had threatened him over the $14. She also said, “that is what Annette told me,” making it unclear what she might have seen and what she had only heard. In that same statement, Leake said she had seen Staten and another man on the street a few blocks over on October 30 and overheard Staten tell this man that he was mad at Harris and that he was “going to get gasoline and throw it in their house.”

She also claimed that Staten had asked her to hold his extermination supplies the day after the fire.

A young woman named Lorraine Palmer who was friends with McCurry gave a statement on March 13, 1986, and said that she and her boyfriend saw Staten on North Percy Street at 3 a.m. on October 30, 1984, holding a bag in his hand. Palmer said that she saw Staten look up at the DeBose house, then cross the street into an empty lot. She did not see him start a fire. The police did not interview her boyfriend, Tyrone Page.

Palmer also said she ran into Staten at a gathering on the night of October 30. By then, rumors about Staten’s involvement were already circulating in the neighborhood. Palmer said she was asked at the gathering whether she had seen Staten around the fire. She said she hadn’t but had seen him on the street at 3 a.m. Palmer said that Staten then threatened her and said she didn’t see anything.

Staten was arrested on March 26, 1986, and charged with second-degree murder, three counts of aggravated assault, three counts of reckless endangerment, arson, and risking a catastrophe.

At a preliminary hearing in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas on April 24, 1986, McCurry testified that she had seen Staten at about 1:30 or 2 a.m. near the DeBose mail slot with a hose in one hand and an exterminator can on the front steps. She said she saw smoke, then fire, then saw the four residents of the house jump out of windows on the second floor. McCurry also said that earlier on October 30, she had heard Staten tell Juanita DeBose and Harris, “if you don’t pay me my money for my roach spray I’ll burn you out.”

During cross-examination at the hearing, McCurry testified both that she saw the hose and didn’t see the hose. Judge Lisa Richette told McCurry, “You are being contradictory.”

Marion DeBose testified about her argument with Harris earlier on the night of the fire and that she tried to kick him out of the house, but Harris wouldn’t leave. She also said she had heard an argument several weeks before the fire between Staten and Williams over the missing roach spray.

Schneiders testified about the investigation. He said the fire burned in a “downward fashion,” because “when the liquid was poured it ran down from the force of gravity and the fire followed that liquid with the burning of the wood and that is why you have the downward burn. The liquid flows and the fire follows it.” He also said the chemical vapors were “consumed in the fire,” an apparent reference to the findings in the laboratory report. Staten’s attorney, Quentin Brooks, did not seek to admit the report into evidence.

When Schneiders left the stand, Judge Richette said, “I never cease to be impressed with your testimony.”

Staten chose a bench trial, also before Judge Richette, which began on October 6, 1986. While the state said that Staten had set the fire based on his dispute with Harris or Williams over the missing roach spray, it also stipulated with the defense that Carl Jones, who did not testify, would have confirmed that he told Staten before that fire that he had taken the pesticide.

Schneiders testified that the fire had been set and that it started in the first-floor vestibule, because that was where “the wood had the deepest char.” He said the downward burn pattern was “the result of liquid being poured and the fire following the liquid pattern through the course of the vapors being heated and then ignited.”

As part of his testimony, Schneiders displayed photographs of the house’s burned interior, which he said showed the pooling of an accelerant. Schneiders testified that he did not smell gasoline and he did not know the type of accelerant used.

The prosecutor asked, “If there was an introduction of an accelerant, for instance, gasoline, into one area of the house, and that was where an open flame was applied to that accelerant, if the fire were to burn in that area for, say, 15 to 20 minutes, okay, would that, in the normal course of the fire, consume the entirety of the accelerant?”

By the time Brooks objected, Schneiders had already answered, “Yes.”

McCurry testified that it was around 2:30 a.m. that she saw a man in front of the DeBose house holding a hose through the mail slot. She said she never saw his face but recognized him as Staten by “how he was shaped or whatever” and that the man had an exterminator’s can. She said smoke began coming out of the house 10 minutes later. She had previously said the smoke came within seconds. McCurry testified she lived five of six houses away from the DeBose house. That was false. She lived 11 houses away.

During cross-examination. Brooks took McCurry through the inconsistencies between her testimony and her previous statements and pre-trial testimony. She acknowledged that she told Brooks and a defense investigator that she wasn’t sure what she saw. “I did tell them that I didn’t see him; I didn’t see him. I’m not sure if it was him I seen at the door.”

McCurry testified that she was drinking and using cocaine at the time of the fire and also using cocaine when she gave her second statement to police in March 1986.

McCurry testified on direct examination that Staten held the hose to the mail slot for 10 minutes. During cross, she said it was five minutes. Finally, she said she was unsure. Judge Richette said, “She is now repudiating former testimony on direct; that’s what she is doing.”

Palmer testified that she and her boyfriend saw Staten on the street at 3 a.m. with a bag in his hand. She also testified that she heard Staten deny setting the fire.

Leake’s testimony differed from her statement to the police. She testified that the jug she saw Staten carrying contained roach spray, not gasoline, and that Staten did not say anything about harming the DeBose house.

Marion DeBose testified about seeing the dispute between Staten and Williams.

Dwayne Griffin, McCurry’s boyfriend, testified for the defense. He said he and McCurry arrived home from the disco at about 2:15 a.m., had something to eat, then went to bed. They heard a scream, looked out the window, and saw smoke from the DeBose house.

Staten testified that at the time of the fire, he was sleeping at his grandmother’s house with a woman he had met at a bar. He said that by the time of the fire, he knew that Williams and Harris had nothing to do with the missing roach spray and that he had already apologized to Williams for the false accusation.

Staten’s grandmother testified that she saw Staten with a woman at her house on October 30, 1984, but she could not remember the exact time. The woman Staten said he met at the bar did not testify.

Williams testified last, as a rebuttal witness for the state. He said that Staten approached him about a week before the fire and asked about the money for the roach spray. Williams refused to pay. Two days later, Williams testified, Staten told him “one of these days, you’re gonna wake up and your house is gonna be on fire.” Brooks did not cross-examine Mr. Williams.

Judge Richette said she was troubled by McCurry’s testimony. She concluded, based on her courtroom observation but without any supporting testimony, that McCurry had not mentioned seeing Staten in her initial statement to the police because she was afraid of Griffin.

“I have a very big problem because I cannot answer one question; that is, why would Annette McCurry come forward and tell us this today?” Judge Richette asked. “There is no motive that I can find for her lying at all. I can understand why she didn’t come forward the first time. And that is after I saw Mr. Dwayne Griffin that made it all very clear to me.”

On October 7, 1986, Judge Richette convicted Staten of all charges. Prior to sentencing, Staten moved to set aside the verdict, which the court quickly denied. A year later, on October 22, 1987, he moved for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel, based on Brooks’s failure to call several witnesses.

The hearing stretched over several days between November 1987 and February 1988. George Stokes, McCurry’s roommate, testified that McCurry was “pissy drunk” on the night of the fire and had to be carried upstairs into bed. Stokes also testified that McCurry admitted to him that she lied about Staten’s role in the fire after the police started taking her to lunch. (The investigator who worked with Brooks testified that Stokes told him this information prior to trial.)

Separately, Ella Mae Brown, the woman whom Staten had met at the speakeasy, testified she was with him on the night of the fire, although she did not know the precise date.

Holliday testified that he had told Staten before the fire that he and Carl Jones took the roach spray. Holliday appeared to be drunk when he testified at the hearing.

Page, Palmer’s boyfriend, did not testify, but Staten’s new attorney submitted a statement from Page that said he did not see Staten on the morning of October 30, 1984, and that he was never contacted by Brooks or his investigator.

On February 25, 1988, the third day of the hearing, Judge Richette appeared ready to vacate Staten’s conviction. “I think this case merits a new trial,” she said, adding that the final outcome of his case might be uncertain because the state would appeal her ruling to Pennsylvania Superior Court. “But I’m just trying to build up a record here.”

That didn’t happen. Nearly a year later, on January 3, 1989, Judge Richette affirmed the conviction in a one-page order. A month later, she sentenced Staten to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

On March 13, 1991, Ernest Pleasant recanted his statement to police and said he lied to police about witnessing Staten confess to setting the fire. Pleasant said that he was actually in prison at the time this encounter was said to have taken place.

Griffin said in a 1996 affidavit that McCurry had testified falsely about what she saw. “I don’t know why she lied about seeing [Staten] that night, she didn’t see anybody start that fire, she wasn’t even looking out the window. We were making love when we heard the first scream.”

These statements formed the core of a motion for a new trial filed by Staten in 1996. It was denied in 1997.

Since Staten’s conviction, arson investigation had been transformed into a more rigorous forensic science. It began with new guidelines published in 1992—and then updated regularly—by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) that urged arson investigators to rely on science rather than anecdotal evidence when determining the cause of a fire.

In 2018, Lawrence Walker, an attorney in Philadelphia, agreed to represent Staten pro bono as co-counsel with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. Walker asked Roger Iapicco, a private fire investigator in New Jersey, to review the forensic evidence and testimony about the cause of the fire. Iapicco concluded that based on modern standards and the science behind these standards, the cause of the fire should have been ruled “undetermined.”

Walker and the Pennsylvania Innocence Project moved on June 9, 2020, to vacate Staten’s conviction. The motion said, “Were the DeBose fire to have occurred today, the methodologies used by Captain Schneiders, and the resulting conclusions, would be invalid. The fire would have been properly classified as of an ‘undetermined’ cause.”

Iapicco’s report, included with the motion, said that Schneiders made several errors. First, Schneiders was too quick to rule the fire arson and was probably influenced by the firefighters who told him they smelled gasoline. This tunnel vision caused him to ignore or excuse evidentiary problems, such as the lack of volatile chemical compounds in the floor samples.

Schneiders testified that the heavy burn patterns in the vestibule indicated where the fire started. Iapicco said that testimony was unsupported by the evidence; ventilation patterns, as opposed to the use of an accelerant, could just have easily accounted for the floor damage. Schneiders testified he detected a “pour pattern,” but Iapicco said scientific testing had shown that accelerants don’t leave these sorts of “visually unique” signatures.

After this motion was filed, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office gave Staten’s attorneys copies of the prosecution and police files in the case in 2022. That led to an amended filing on February 13, 2023, which said that the state had failed to turn over notes of an interview Williams gave to the police on November 17, 1984.

In that statement, which contradicted his trial testimony, Williams said Staten had not threatened him the last time they talked about the roach spray, which was two weeks before the fire. He also said that he didn’t think Williams would do something like start a fire.

“The suppressed evidence that Robert Williams told police that Staten did not threaten him over the roach spray, and that he would not commit this crime, cuts to the heart of Staten’s conviction,” the motion said. “There is a reasonable probability that if the court had heard this evidence, it would have reached a different outcome.”

Prior to the amended filing, Staten’s attorneys asked the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to review the case. As part of that review, which began in 2022, the CIU retained Dixon Robin, a retired special agent and fire investigator with the Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

On January 23, 2024, the state agreed that Staten’s conviction should be vacated, based on the findings of Robin’s review, which said that the cause of the fire should have been ruled “undetermined.” Robin’s report said, “The lack of the use of a systematic methodology, coupled with a misunderstanding and application of fire science principles, led to unsupportable conclusions about the origin and cause.”

Robin noted the advances in fire science during the past two decades, including knowledge of the process known as “flashover,” when a fire spreads rapidly and can distort burn patterns and mimic the appearance of accelerants. “Failure to understand the distorting impact ventilation and flashover can have on fire effects can result in misinterpretation of those effects, leading to erroneous origin and cause determinations,” he wrote.

Robin said that Schneiders did not “willfully violate” the scientific method; “It simply was not taught nor employed as a framework for fire investigation in 1984.”

Because the CIU response agreed that Staten was entitled to a new trial based on the forensic review, it did not address the claim that the state had failed to turn over Williams’s statement to Staten’s trial attorney.

On February 5, 2024, Judge Scott DiClaudio of the Court of Common Pleas granted the motion for a new trial and a separate motion to dismiss the charges against Staten.

Now 71 years old, Staten was released from prison that day to his family, including a great-grandson and a granddaughter that he had never seen.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/14/2024
Last Updated: 2/14/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault, Arson, Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:1984
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:31
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No