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Claude Garrett

Other arson exonerations
On May 10, 2022, Claude Garrett was exonerated of murder and released from prison after serving nearly 29 years since he was first convicted in 1993 for an arson fire that killed his 24-year-old girlfriend, Lorie Lance.

The exoneration was the product of a reinvestigation by the Tennessee Innocence Project, as well as the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office Conviction Review Unit (CRU). A multitude of experts concluded that the original evidence cited as proof of arson was flawed and based on outdated and unsupported claims.

“While the CRU's review of the case did not find affirmative evidence conclusively establishing Garrett's innocence, the CRU finds it wholly impossible to maintain confidence in Garrett’s conviction,” CRU director Sunny Eaton said in a report requesting that Garrett’s conviction be vacated and the case dismissed. The report, co-authored by Connor Webber, said, “Holistic review of the record, the District Attorney’s file, and new scientific evidence dismantles every single piece of evidence previously believed to [inculpate] Garrett.”

The case against Garrett was based on a fire that erupted in the early morning hours of February 24, 1992, in the 900-square-foot cinder block home where Garrett, 35, and Lance, who were planning to be married, were living.

Garrett told authorities that he woke up to the smell of smoke and went into the living room where he saw flames. He woke Lance and attempted to lead her out of the home, but she broke away and ran toward the rear of the house. Garrett escaped through the front door, suffering second degree burns on parts of his body.

Shortly after 5 a.m., a neighbor, Ruby Alcorn, looked out and saw Garrett jumping up and down in his front yard. Her husband and son ran out and helped Garrett break windows. The first fire truck arrived at 5:09 a.m. and Garrett said Lance was inside.

Although the fire was quickly contained to the living room and front bedroom, firefighters did not discover Lance’s body until about 5:45 a.m. or 6 a.m. She was partially wedged behind a washer/dryer and against the back wall of a utility room in the rear of the house. She had died of smoke inhalation.

Garrett, who smelled of alcohol, said that he and Lance had spent the evening at a bar with her stepfather. They came home after midnight and fell asleep in the living room while watching television. They woke up later and moved to their bed.

Davidson County Medical Examiner Gretel Harlan conducted an autopsy and concluded that nonfatal first- and second-degree burns on the upper part of Lance’s body were suffered before she got to the utility room. There was no evidence that Lance had been in a physical struggle or had been forced into the utility room.

After completing the autopsy, Harlan returned to the house. She noticed that the door to the utility room, which opened into the house, had a sliding bolt, and took a photograph. If the bolt were slid into its housing, the room was locked from the outside, meaning that someone in the room could not exit.

Nashville Police Detective David Miller interviewed Garrett and took Garrett’s clothing. Tests on the clothing were negative for the presence of an accelerant.

Fire Marshal Kenneth Porter also investigated. He discovered a plastic five-gallon container of kerosene near the utility room door. The home was heated by a kerosene heater. The fire had melted holes in the top of the container and the smell of kerosene was strong.

In the living room, Porter saw an irregular burn pattern on the floor and believed these were “pour patterns,” burn marks left by the burning of an accelerant. Porter took five samples of debris from those areas. However, tests performed on the samples were negative for the presence of any accelerant.

To better examine the pour patterns, Porter ordered firefighters to wash out the house and move furniture and other debris outside.

Porter then contacted James Cooper, a member of an arson task force for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Explosives (ATF). Cooper arrived at the scene about 6:30 p.m., more than 12 hours after the fire was extinguished.

Cooper looked at the living room floor and decided he saw a pour pattern. He later said he interviewed firefighter Jenkins and claimed that Jenkins told him the utility room door was “latched.”

Cooper also said he found a bedspread by the utility room door. Although there was standing water nearby that mingled with kerosene that leaked from the fire-damaged container, Cooper concluded that the bedspread, which was saturated with liquid, had been used as a “trailer” to pull the fire from the living room to the utility room.

Cooper took a sample of the bedspread and from a disabled smoke detector. He also took samples from the living room, including a piece of cardboard, which somehow had miraculously survived the blaze. Although all of the samples taken by the fire department were negative for an accelerant, all of Cooper’s samples were positive for the presence of kerosene.

Based on Cooper’s conclusions, Garrett was arrested on June 5, 1992 and charged with first-degree murder.

In August 1993, Garrett went to trial in Davidson County Criminal Court. The prosecution contended that Garrett had locked Lance in the utility room and started the fire. The disabled smoke detector had been found on the dryer in the utility room and was part of the circumstantial evidence.

Fire Captain Otis Jenkins testified that he found Lance’s body. He told the jury that the door to the utility room was locked.

Cooper testified that the burn pattern on the living room floor was evidence that an accelerant had been used to start the fire. He said that “somebody deliberately poured a liquid accelerant on the floor…my experience and my conclusion is, and I can’t walk away from it, it keeps on coming back, that there’s a pour pattern in the living room.”

Garrett testified that he and Lance were planning to be married. He said they spent the evening before the fire at a bar, where they met Lance’s stepfather and stepbrother. He described how he woke up, discovered the fire in the living room and returned to the bedroom to wake Lance. He said she grabbed his arm and that as they headed back toward the front door, she pulled away as if she was going to the rear of the house.

Garrett said he ran out the front door and began breaking windows, calling for Lance. He denied locking her in the utility room. He said he believed the door was not locked. He said the smoke detector had been taken down a few days earlier while the kitchen was being painted. He was treated for burns on his face, forehead, nose, hand, and arm.

The prosecution accused Garrett of having struck Lance in the past, which Garrett denied.

On August 19, 1993, the jury convicted Garrett of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1996, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction. Garrett subsequently filed a post-conviction petition for a new trial claiming that the prosecution had failed to disclose an 11-page report from Detective Miller that reported that Fire Captain Jenkins told him the utility room door was not locked—contrary to Jenkins’s testimony at the trial.

The post-conviction petition was denied. Garrett appealed and in March 2001, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed that ruling, vacated Garrett’s conviction, and ordered a new trial.

The court noted that the prosecution claimed that Miller’s report was not withheld and that it was not exculpatory. “We disagree in all respects,” the appellate court ruled. “The evidence in the post-conviction hearing showed that the prosecutor led defense counsel to believe that the State had no information about the locked or unlocked status of the utility room door.”

The court said, “However, at trial the State's witnesses testified that the utility room door was locked and the prosecutor submitted to the jury as the theory of the State's case that the defendant locked the victim in the utility room and set the house on fire. Therefore, the State did have, prior to trial, information that the door was locked. In fact, not only did the State have information that the door to the utility room was locked, but they also possessed the eleven-page Miller Report, which indicated otherwise: that Fire Captain Jenkins, who was the first to enter the utility room and find the victim's body, found the door unlocked.”

“This eleven-page report was clearly withheld from the defendant,” the court declared.

The appellate court said it was “extremely troubled” by the conduct of the trial prosecutor, John Zimmerman. During the hearing on the post-conviction petition, Zimmerman admitted that he had seen the Miller report, but did not consider it exculpatory. Zimmerman said he confronted Jenkins about it and Jenkins claimed he never told Miller that the door was not locked. Zimmerman said he thought Miller had made a mistake about what Jenkins said.

Subsequently, Zimmerman was publicly censured by the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, the group which oversees attorneys in that state.

Garrett went to trial a second time in June 2003. Cooper again testified that the fire was an arson caused by an accelerant poured on the living room floor. The defense sought to discredit him because he admittedly had not followed by-then established scientific protocols for fire investigation. The protocols were set forth by the National Fire Protection Association in a publication called NFPA 921.

By that time, evidence had been developed that a phenomenon known as “flashover” during a fire caused charring that resembled pour patterns. Flashover occurred when a room became so hot that it instantly went up in flames, burning everything in the room without the presence of an accelerant.

Cooper admitted the room had experienced flashover, but insisted that he could tell by visual examination that the patterns he found on the living room floor were the result of an accelerant being poured there and ignited.

Cooper also claimed that V-pattern charring on the baseboards was evidence of where the fire was started. He said the V-pattern was “like a red flag waving at you.”

Stuart Bayne, a fire science expert, testified for the defense that he believed the fire started from a smoldering cigarette in a loveseat in the living room. Bayne concluded that no kerosene was involved and that there was nothing that could be called a pour pattern.

Bayne said that Lance had burns, but only to her upper body, which was shielded by the washer/dryer. Her burns were similar to the burns suffered by Garrett, he said, indicating that she was burned before she got to the utility room. Moreover, Lance’s bare legs were exposed in the utility room and had no burns, Bayne noted.

However, on June 25, 2003, the jury convicted Garrett of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In 2005, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the conviction.

In 2007, Garrett filed a post-conviction petition seeking a new trial. The motion said that his trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to present evidence showing that a growing body of evidence had discredited Cooper’s conclusion that the fire was arson. This was based on the testimony of fire expert John Lentini, who said that based on NFPA 921, it was error for Cooper to believe he could tell the difference between charring caused by flashover and charring caused by an ignitable liquid.

The petition was denied in 2010 and the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the denial in 2012. In 2017, Garrett filed a motion for a writ of error coram nobis and a motion to reopen the post-conviction relief. Those pleadings were denied on the ground that new reports from other experts were a reiteration of Lentini’s testimony. The denial was upheld by the appeals court in 2018.

In November 2021, a motion to reopen the petition for post-conviction relief was filed by Tennessee Innocence Project attorneys Jessica Van Dyke and Jason Gichner, as well as Assistant Federal Defender Michael Holley.

“Since 2003, there have been at least four major developments in the scientific study of fire origins that combine to conclusively prove Agent Cooper’s conclusion was wrong and that, moreover, his putative expert testimony would be inadmissible at trial,” the motion said.

The motion noted that in 2004, a new edition NFPA 921 “expressly told investigators to avoid even using the term ‘pour pattern.’” This was based on scientific studies establishing that “fire patterns resulting from burning ignitable liquids are not visually unique” and therefore charring patters would not mean a fire was started with an accelerant.

From 2005 to 2007, the ATF conducted a series of studies on flashover. The studies revealed a “radical uncertainty” in determining, after flashover, the origin of a fire. Fire expert John Lentini prepared a report for the defense saying: “Finding an origin without an accidental ignition source will lead investigators who do not understand science to conclude that somebody must have placed some fuel at that origin and ignited it with an open flame.’

“This is the error that Agent Cooper committed as he confidently decided the fire had started at a particular spot on the living room floor,” the motion declared.

In 2013, a study funded by the National Institute of Justice concluded that ignitable liquids “only burn for a very short time” and as a result, the charring that results is not very deep. Lentini noted, “The charring shown in… the photos [of the living room floor] is too deep to have been caused by the short-lived fire produced by burning kerosene.”

And in 2019, Underwriters Laboratories conducted a series of fire tests that established that once a fire becomes fully involved, the oxygen concentration in all but the lowest levels of the room drops to the point where flaming combustion can no longer be supported, the motion said. Consequently, that meant that the floors in the living room could only burn when the room was fully involved—in flashover.

The motion said that Dr. Candace Ashby, a fire investigator, conducted an experiment in 2019 to recreate conditions in Garrett’s house. She exposed two boards with locks like the one on the utility room door to a fire. One lock was in the closed position and the other in the open position. The result of that test, combined with the photographs of the lock taken on the day of the fire, showed that the lock “would have been in the unlocked or open position,” the motion said.

“The…post-trial scientific developments have established that Agent Cooper’s claim to have supreme powers of visual interpretation was utterly misguided,” the motion declared.

The motion said that Lentini and other fire experts, including Ashby, Dr. Craig Beyler and Dr. John DeHaan “all agree that the fire cannot possibly be called arson, and they all agree that Agent Cooper’s investigation was inadequate and his opinion utterly wrong.” Beyler and other fire experts worked remotely as a group called the Tetrahedron Committee, a reference to the four factors that combine to generate fire: fuel, heat, oxygen, and a chemical reaction.

The motion said, “It is now completely clear the fire was not set intentionally and Claude Garrett is innocent. He is entitled to a hearing and to relief.”

In a response filed by CRU director Eaton, the prosecution said that its reinvestigation of the case led to the conclusion that there was “clear and convincing evidence” that Garrett did not set the fire.

“Comprehensive review of the evidence and analysis by multiple fire investigation experts reveal Cooper’s investigation to be faulty, his methods outdated, and his conclusions unsubstantiated,” the CRU report of its investigation said. “His testimony was emotionally charged, filled with inflammatory overstatements, mischaracterizations of the evidence, and assumptions regarding Garrett’s intent.”

The report noted that Garrett’s expert at his second trial, Stuart Bayne, theorized that the fire was started by a cigarette that ignited the loveseat. “A South African fire expert, Gary Kemp, has reviewed Bayne’s analysis and agreed the hypothesis is sound,” the CRU report said.

“When stripped of the demonstrably unreliable testimony, faulty investigative methods, and baseless speculation…the case against Garrett is nonexistent,” the report said.

In an order signed May 6, 2022, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins ruled there was “clear and convincing” evidence that if jurors were aware of the new fire evidence, Garrett would be acquitted. “Garrett has shown actual innocence,” the judge declared.

Judge Watkins vacated the conviction and granted Garrett a new trial. On May 10, 2022, the prosecution then dismissed the case and Garrett was released. Garrett died on October 31, 2022.

Gretel or her medical examiner husband, Charles Harlan, have been involved in other wrongful convictions in Tennessee: Wayne Burgess, Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/21/2022
Last Updated: 8/16/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1992
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:35
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No