PHILADELPHIA (February 5, 2024) – The District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit on Monday secured the exoneration of Harold Staten for a 1984 North Philadelphia house fire in which one man was killed and three others were injured. As of today, the administration of District Attorney Larry Krasner has supported 41 exonerations of 40 wrongfully convicted people.
“Substantial changes in fire science have significantly altered modern fire investigation standards and accepted practices. Current fire investigations rely on a modern understanding of fire dynamics and the scientific method — all of which was absent from the investigation in this case,” Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) Assistant Supervisor ADA Carrie Wood said. “A review of Mr. Staten’s conviction, which included a report from a former ATF Special Agent and Certified Fire Investigator, led us to conclude that there is little credible information that could stand up his murder conviction today. We are pleased that the Court of Common Pleas vacated Mr. Staten’s conviction and granted our motion to withdraw all charges against him.”
“I want to thank ADA Rachel Lee and CIU supervisors Michael Garmisa and Carrie Wood for their work in this important case. The criminal legal system has an imperative to keep pace with advancements in the sciences, so that police and prosecutors have the sharpest and most accurate investigative tools possible to solve cases more quickly and accurately,” DA Krasner said. “Due to the passage of time, we unfortunately may never know how the fire began that killed Charles Harris nearly four decades ago. Modern technologies such as smoke detectors have made most residential fires survivable, and my office will continue to work with our public safety partners in the city to achieve that fully realizable goal.”
On October 30, 1984, at approximately 3:38 a.m. at the 3000 block of North Percy Street, a row home caught fire. Four occupants were forced to jump from the second-floor windows of the home, and Charles Harris later died at the hospital of thermal burns.
The fire was investigated by the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Fire Marshal’s Office along with Philadelphia Police. A then-lieutenant with the Fire Marshal on scene told investigators that the fire had been intentionally set in the vestibule by an “open flame applied to an accelerant.” The following day, however, a chemical analysis by the Philadelphia Criminalistics Laboratory showed no accelerant was detected in the samples of floorboards taken from the vestibule.
Police interviewed several witnesses and made no immediate arrests. It was not until March 26, 1986, that Harold Staten was arrested for murder and arson after a 17-year-old witness, who previously told detectives she never saw Staten the night of the fire, suddenly told detectives she saw Staten at the door of the house the night of the fire. Staten was convicted in October by the Honorable Lisa Richette following a two-day bench trial in which the Fire Marshal lieutenant testified that the fire was deliberately set using an accelerant (the lab test detecting no accelerant was not introduced at trial) and the 17-year-old witness gave conflicting accounts of having seen Staten outside the home. Under cross-examination, the 17-year-old also admitted to using cocaine the night of the fire.
Despite noting the conflicting testimony from the 17-year-old and that this was not an easy case, Judge Richette found Staten guilty of arson, second-degree murder, and other related charges. Staten was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Information undermining the 17-year-old‘s credibility would be uncovered years later, including at a 1988 post-conviction hearing in which her roommate testified that the key prosecution witness came home from a disco on the night of the fire so “drunk, pissy drunk” and “really intoxicated… very intoxicated,” that he and her boyfriend had to carry her upstairs to bed. Both her roommate and Staten’s trial investigator testified that the 17-year-old admitted to lying about Staten’s involvement in the fire after police officers started taking her out for lunch.
In 2020, defense counsel at the Pennsylvania Innocence Project filed a new Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) petition on Staten’s behalf. The DA’s Office provided discovery and the CIU began to review Mr. Staten’s petition for relief in 2022. In 2023, the CIU retained forensic expert Dixon Robin, a retired Supervisory Special Agent and Certified Fire Investigator with the Department of Justice, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). After reviewing the investigation leading to Staten’s arrest and conviction, Dixon concluded that the Fire Marshal’s origin and cause determinations were not supportable under modern fire investigation standards (which are now based on methodologically sound and accepted concepts of fire science), and the cause of the fire should be considered undetermined, rather than arson. Robin noted that, at the time of the then Lieutenant Fire Marshall’s determination this was a fire intentionally set with accelerant, he “had access to two pieces of evidence — the heavy damage and the fire pattern on the floor in the vestibule — both of which are not actually evidence of anything more than a fire had occurred.”
The DA’s response to Staten’s PCRA petitions can be found on PhillyDA.org. Information on exonerations — which occur when a court both vacates a conviction and grants a motion to nolle pros the charges — secured by the DA’s CIU and Law Division can be found on the DA’s DATA Dashboard.
Jane Roh, 215-686-8711, [email protected]
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office is the largest prosecutor’s office in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the nation. It serves the more than 1.5 million residents of the City and County of Philadelphia, employing 600 lawyers, detectives, and support staff. The District Attorney’s Office is responsible for the prosecution of approximately 40,000 criminal cases annually. Learn more about the DAO by visiting PhillyDA.org.