Harold Staten -- Free after 38 Years of Wrongful Incarceration
On February 5, 2024, Harold Stated walked out of the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Phoenix. Harold was wrongfully convicted nearly 38 years ago of arson and murder. Pivotal new evidence based on revolutionary developments in fire science and the reinvestigation of this case by the Conviction Integrity Unit at the District Attorney’s Office made all the difference in Harold’s case. Harold was welcomed home by his family and legal team.
How did this happen?
Harold's Wrongful Arrest and Conviction
In 1984, a North Philadelphia home caught fire, resulting in the death of one resident, Charles Harris. During the initial review of the scene, Philadelphia fire investigators determined that the fire was intentionally set and classified it as arson. The fire had spread throughout the home, leaving the four occupants to escape through the second story windows.
The firefighters who arrived at the scene were unable to enter the home because of the intensity of the flames inside the front door. Once the fire was extinguished, it was investigated immediately. The investigators concluded that the fire had been intentionally set in the vestibule because of the concentration of damage and “fire patterns” observed there.
Harold Staten lived in the neighborhood and knew the occupants of the home that had burned. Harold was working as an exterminator at the time and had a disagreement with one resident some weeks before the fire about supplies that had gone missing. Neighbors knew about the disagreement and mentioned it to the police during their investigation. Harold also spoke to police at the time of the initial investigation. It was not until the investigation was re-opened more than a year later that Harold was arrested in connection with the arson and murder based on often contradictory witness statements.
Harold waived his right to a jury trial; in 1986 he was convicted of arson and second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Harold's Quest to Prove His Innocence
Harold has always maintained his innocence; his strong faith was a driving factor in advocating for himself for nearly four decades of wrongful incarceration. He persistently applied to have his case reconsidered, filing appeals in the courts and reaching out to innocence organizations and other attorneys for help. The Project initially reviewed Harold’s case over a decade ago based on concerns about the reliability of the eyewitness whose testimony led to his conviction. The Project renewed its review as our lawyers learned more about the significant advances in fire science that had occurred in the decades since Harold’s conviction. Along with a team from Cozen O’Connor, the Project retained an expert to review the case through the lens of modern fire science. He determined that the fire never should have been declared an arson at all.
That opinion allowed us to file a Post Conviction Relief (PCRA) petition on Harold’s behalf in 2020 and to ask the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office’s Conviction Integrity Unit to reinvestigate the case. The CIU’s 2022 investigation revealed previously suppressed evidence that called into question the motive evidence the Commonwealth used against Harold at trial. The CIU also engaged an independent expert who conducted a new evaluation of the scene that used modern and up-to-date fire science and agreed that the fire should not have been classified as intentionally set.
Key to the reinvestigation by both experts was the publication of the 2021 edition of NFPA 921, the National Fire Protection Association’s “Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations,” which added a whopping 100 new sections on the topic of fire effects and patterns, both critical to analyzing the fire in this case. Based on that publication and its expert’s opinion, the Commonwealth recommended to the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas that Harold’s conviction be vacated because the original investigator’s “origin and cause determinations are not supportable under modern fire investigations (which are now based on methodologically sound and accepted concepts of fire science), and that the cause should be undetermined.”
This is a case in which not only was a person wrongfully convicted of a crime, but it is likely that no crime even occurred.
On February 5, 2024, the Court vacated Harold’s conviction and dismissed all charges against him.
Reinvestigating arson cases across Pennsylvania has been a core part of the Project’s work, and this is a fascinating area of advancements in forensic science. Read more about the science behind Harold’s case here.
The long effort to get Harold’s conviction vacated has been no small feat and many individuals have contributed along the way. The Project team on Harold’s case was led by Legal Director Nilam Sanghvi and former Senior Staff Attorney Amelia Maxfield, who is now a Senior Staff Attorney with the Exoneration Project. The Cozen O’Connor team included Larry Walker, who has unique experience in fire investigations through his civil practice, and Matt Glazer, who is a former Philadelphia prosecutor with family ties to the Project – his father is our founding executive director Richard Glazer. Kevin Gibbs and Chase Howard of Cozen O’Connor also worked on Harold’s case.
You can read more about Harold's case here: