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Texas inmate gets new trial amid state arson review

HOUSTON -- A Texas man convicted of setting a fire that killed his two stepsons has been granted a new trial by the state’s highest criminal court amid a statewide review of questionable arson convictions.

Ed Graf’s case is one of several arson cases under review by the Lubbock-based Innocence Project of Texas and a new state fire panel reexamining arson investigations that may have been compromised by faulty scientific conclusions. The unprecedented investigation of closed cases was recommended by the state’s Forensic Science Commission.

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Graf, 60, is serving a life sentence for setting the fire that killed his stepsons Joby, 9, and Jason, 8, in a backyard shed at their home outside Waco, Texas, in 1986.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Graf’s conviction set aside Wednesday, noting in its order: “False expert testimony at [Graf’s] trial violated his due process rights.”

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The court declined to issue a finding of actual innocence, sending his case back to district court in Waco, where Graf can request release on bond pending a new trial.

Innocence Project officials have said they hope the statewide arson review will help overturn wrongful convictions that relied on so-called “junk science” -- discredited approaches of determining whether fires were intentionally set.

The state fire panel was convened after a report last year by the Forensic Science Commission found that unreliable science had helped lead to Cameron Todd Willingham’s conviction for murder by arson in 1992. Willingham, 24, had been convicted in the deaths of his three children in a 1991 fire at their home in Corsicana, about 55 miles south of Dallas. He was executed in 2004.

Innocence Project staff found about 30 problematic arson cases they wanted to investigate and brought them to the six-member state fire panel when it met for the first time in January.

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Fire panel members plan to contact local officials and gather more information about the cases before their meeting next month, the state fire marshal has told The Times. They plan to draft reports of their findings in time for their meeting in June.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com 

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