A report out Tuesday on America’s record-high number of exonerations in 2013 includes a disturbing story of a bar owner who spent three years in prison for a “crime” that never happened.
Joseph Awe, owner of a bar called J.J.’s Pub in Wisconsin, was finally exonerated in 2013 after a local newspaper ran a series suggesting the fire that led to his arson conviction was actually an accident.
The conviction was particularly egregious because building’s insurer, Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Co., hired the fire experts who testified against Awe, according to the report by the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE). That insurer stood to lose $US200,000 if the fire was ruled an accident. The case is also awful because Awe, who was 42 when he was freed in March, lost a good chunk of his life.
“I just want to be with my family, and I want a bath,” Awe told the Wisconsin State Journal right after his exoneration.”I just want to be home.”
Awe was one of 87 people who were exonerated of a crime in 2013, according to the NRE report. In 22% of those cases, a crime never actually occurred.
That appears to be the case with Awe. He was named as a suspect in the September 2006 blaze the day after it happened, before investigators even determined its cause, according to the NRE report.
Mt. Morris also began probing the fire and hired experts whom the prosecution later called to the stand during Awe’s trial. (The prosecution never told the defence it was using the insurer’s experts, according to NRE.) While Awe’s expert testified the fire was electrical, those hired by the insurer said somebody punched a hole in the bar and set it on fire.
Despite being at home 35 miles away from the bar during the fire, Awe was still convicted of being a “party” to the crime of arson. (Investigators never located the person who supposedly set the fire.)
On appeal, Awe’s lawyer presented testimony from two nationally renowned fire experts (including John Lentini, a leading expert who has conducted 2,000 fires.) Lentini and the other expert, Mark Svare, testified the fire at J.J.’s originated in the electrical service panel of the building, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
We’ll never know what caused the insurer’s experts to reach a more damning conclusion, but there are obvious conflicts of interests when investigators who have been hired by an insurer then testify for the prosecution.
In the case of Awe, local investigators relied heavily on investigative work done by the insurer, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. Mt. Morris paid the electrical engineer who made the crucial call early on that the fire was not electrical, which spurred Deputy State Fire Marshal James Siehelr to say the blaze was arson.
The deputy state fire marshall told the local paper it was standard for insurers in Wisconsin to hire experts who make these kinds of crucial calls.
“We don’t have any resources to do that type of work,” Siehelr told the paper. “We’re very reliant on insurance companies providing us with that resource.”
In a deeply ironic twist, Awe was also hit with a civil suit from the insurance company, which wanted him to repay $US67,000 it spent investigating and helping to prosecute the case. As of March, the insurance company had yet to drop that civil suit, according to the State Journal.
We reached out to Mt. Morris for comment and will update this post if we hear back.
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