Fire investigators didn’t do proper job, judge rules

St. John’s man acquitted of intentionally setting blaze on Blackmarsh Road

Rosie Mullaley
Published on January 25, 2013
Kevin Charles Roberts awaits the verdict in his arson trial at Newfoundland Supreme Court in St. John’s Thursday. — Photo by Rosie Gillingham/The Telegram

Investigators jumped the gun in assuming Kevin Charles Roberts intentionally set the fire that destroyed a St. John’s house two years ago, a judge ruled Thursday.

Justice James Adams said the people who examined the home after the blaze did not follow proper procedure when investigating what happened.

As a result, Adams found Roberts not guilty of arson and breaching a court order.

“Classifying a fire in the absence of (evidence) is prejudicial,” Adam said in rendering his decision at Newfoundland Supreme Court.

“It can lead to (an incorrect) conclusion. Couple this with the other circumstantial evidence and it can result in a charge of arson that is unwarranted.”

After the verdict, Roberts smiled and shook hands with his lawyer, Mark Gruchy.

But Roberts was led back to jail, since he’s still serving a prison term for driving-related offences. Last year, he got a 14-month sentence and is due to be released from jail the end of February.

“I’m just happy that I’ve been proven innocent,” Roberts told this Telegram reporter when asked for a comment as he was leaving the courtroom.

Roberts was accused of intentionally setting the fire on June 5, 2011, at a two-apartment house at 32 Blackmarsh Rd., where he lived with his girlfriend.

The blaze was first noticed by two women who were walking by the house. They knocked on the door, notifying the woman in the basement apartment and called 911.

Minutes later, it was a raging inferno, with flames shooting out from the windows.

A number of firefighters testified during the trial that when first entering the house, they were met with intense heat and thick smoke.

The Crown relied heavily on the testimony of fire investigator Scott Tilley. Tilley determined there were three separate fires in three rooms that were not connected. He concluded the fires were suspicious.

He had identified the origin of the fire in the first and third rooms, but could not point to any source in the second bedroom.

However, the judge said Tilley did not follow National Fire Protection Association guidelines while conducting his investigation.

“Even though fire is complex, he did not do any tests to map the fire and look at the progress of the fire,” Adams said. “He was content to rely on his experience and visual to form his opinion.

“He concluded early it was a suspicious fire and that the fires were not linked without any objective approach.”

Adams said that often results in a misinterpretation of the evidence. He said Tilley did not take into consideration the intense heat and the ventilation firefighters made in the roof that could have influenced the pattern of the fire.

Adams said, Tilley erred in coming to “a premature conclusion in that it was not scientifically balanced.”

But even if the fire was deliberately set, the Crown still had to prove Roberts was responsible. Adams said that was not determined.

While witnesses place Roberts at the scene minutes before the fire, the judge pointed out there were inconsistencies with their testimony. Their memories were also unclear about certain key details. The two women, who first spotted the fire, said they saw Roberts in a car that pulled out of the driveway of the house. Yet, neither could identify him in a photo lineup.

One woman admitted in court that she had poor eyesight since she wasn’t wearing her glasses, but didn’t tell that to police. The other woman said she only recognized Roberts when she saw his picture in the media. She also changed her version of certain details of when they saw the fire.

The downstairs tenant testified that she had seen Roberts leave the house just before the fire, saying she saw the headlights of his car. But the judge questioned how she could see headlights if it was not yet dark.

For motivation, Crown prosecutor Elizabeth Ivany referenced the fact there was an issue with rent being late for the apartment and the threat of eviction from his landlord.

The landlord had earlier testified she had a heated argument with Roberts about a missed rent payment and that he yelled at her when she said she would evict him. But Adams said it would be hard to believe that someone would “burn one’s own house and destroy all their belongings.”

Defence lawyer Mark Gruchy argued the case against his client

“is at root, a circumstantial case.” In final arguments, Gruchy pointed to the fact Tilley admitted on the witness stand there were other ways the fire could have started, including through an electrical circuit breaker trip.

“It could have been completely accidental or caused by malfunction,” he said.

Gruchy said there was a sense that investigators rushed to judgement.

“A phenomenon known as expectation bias influenced the investigators’ conclusions, meaning they decided it was an arson long before they should have. and that influenced their entire process and led them astray,” Gruchy said.

He said Roberts has maintained his innocence from the beginning and wants to get on with his life and his career, which includes running his own cleaning company.

“In my view, he is an articulate and intelligent person with a great deal of potential,” Gruchy said. “He is a good man who does not wish harm on anyone.”

Twitter: @TelyCourt