The Sept. 10, 1995, fire that killed 40-year-old Marianne Miceli was an accident, not a murder, according to the first of several fire investigators expected to testify this week in William Amor's bid for a new trial.
Amor, 60, was convicted in 1997 of aggravated arson and the first degree murder of Miceli, his mother-in-law. He has served nearly half of his 45-year sentence and is expected to be paroled in March 2018, yet he's seeking a new sentence.
Along with attorneys from the Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois Springfield, Amor is hoping to convince Judge Liam Brennan that the fire investigators who ruled the fire an arson did so using "outdated and discredited techniques."
Doug Carpenter of Maryland-based Combustion Science & Engineering Inc. testified Monday that fire science engineers "have a much better understanding of things related to fire investigation and pattern development" than they did 20 years ago.
Carpenter said he relied on the "facts and body of scientific knowledge related to the fire" to conclude the fire was accidental, rather than incendiary.
In a tape-recorded confession at the time of his arrest, Amor said he started the fire to collect insurance money when he spilled vodka onto a Sunday newspaper, then dropped a cigarette on it to light it, and left with his wife.
Within 20 minutes, the napping Miceli awoke and called 911, saying she could not get out of the burning apartment.
A dispatcher told her to get low to the floor, but she started coughing and died in her bedroom from smoke inhalation, with the phone cord wrapped around her.
The bedroom next to her, with the door closed and locked, was untouched by the fire.
Amor's attorneys maintain the confession was coerced.
Carpenter also discredited the theory Monday, saying it was highly unlikely for a smoldering cigarette to ignite a newspaper. Instead he said the fire was much more likely caused by a cigarette that Amor's wife, Tina, told police she "lost" as she sat in an upholstered recliner watching football.
The hearing, believed to be the first of its kind in Illinois involving advancements in fire investigation, is expected to continue at 10 a.m. with the cross-examination of Carpenter and is expected to last through the week.
John DeHaan of Fire-Ex Forensics in Vallejo, California, and Steve Drizin, associate dean and clinical professor of law at Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University Law School, are expected to testify this week as well.