John Galvan was 21 years into a life sentence when he came across an episode of Mythbusters that would help ensure his release 14 years later.
An innocent man has been released from prison after 35 years of wrongful conviction, partly due to a rerun of an old Mythbusters show.
Two siblings were killed in a fire in a Southwest Chicago apartment in September 1986. According to the Innocence Project, two siblings managed to escape the fire. They told authorities that they thought the fire was started by a neighbor in retaliation for her brother’s death, reportedly at the hands of a street gang known as the Latin Kings.
An old Mythbusters show aided in his release.
Picture credit: KathyHutchins/shutterstock.com
The neighbor was questioned, but he pointed to John Galvan, 18, his brother, and another neighbor. Other neighbors joined in the accusation, and John, asleep at his grandmother’s home at the time of the fire, was arrested.
During his arrest, Galvan was interrogated and informed he could go home if he implicated others in the crime, an offer also made to another suspect, Arthur Almendarez. Finally, all three signed statements confessing to the crime and admitting to throwing a Molotov cocktail through an apartment building window. John and Arthur subsequently stated that they signed these statements after being physically abused, while the third accused man stated that he signed it drunk without being read his rights. All three were eventually found guilty of first-degree homicide and aggravated arson.
One flaw in Galvan’s statement, which ultimately helped to overturn his conviction, was that he claimed to have lit the Molotov cocktail with a cigarette. Years later, at 39, Galvan watched a re-run of an episode of Mythbusters from his prison cell and saw them show that it was nearly impossible. The program was putting Hollywood tropes to the test, such as tossing a cigarette into a pool of gasoline, which would ignite it. After several desperate efforts to light a fire with a cigarette (including rolling it around in there), they decided it was a myth.
In fact, though we’d suggest just rubbing it against the ground, you can put a cigarette out in gasoline if you’re in a pinch.
Galvan contacted his lawyer, who had also witnessed the incident, and she looked into this part of his case further. After a group of suspected arsonists claimed that cigarettes inadvertently started fires, a team of researchers at America’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) investigated the same thing in 2007. The crew attempted 2,000 times to light a gasoline fire with a cigarette, even spraying gasoline on a lit cigarette. It never caught fire.
“Despite what you see in action movies, dropping a lit cigarette onto a trail of gasoline won’t ignite it, assuming normal oxygen levels and no unusual circumstances,” the bureau said at the time to The Scotsman.
“That’s because the gasoline has limited contact with the hottest, glowing part of the ash, and X-ray thermography has shown this is very localized.”
Galvan’s legal team secured his exoneration by using arson experts to testify to the impossibility of lighting gasoline with cigarettes, and several witnesses who testified that the police officer who took the statements had used violent coercion elsewhere. A few years later, all three sentences were overturned at their appeals.
“Mr. Galvan’s case speaks to the critical importance of establishing such mechanisms for people to get back into court when science changes or evolves, or when experts repudiate past testimony,” said Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project director of policy, in a press release. “Without these mechanisms in many instances, innocent people are prevented from presenting forensic evidence of their innocence after their wrongful conviction.”
“A ‘change-in-science’ statute here would have allowed for a presentation reflecting those changes in arson science and could have likely expedited Mr. Galvan’s exoneration.”
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