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Philadelphia man exonerated after nearly 40 years in prison

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(PHILADELPHIA) — A man incarcerated for nearly 40 years was released from prison on Monday after a judge ruled his conviction be overturned.

Harold Staten, 71, was found guilty after prosecutors said he set a 1986 fire that killed a man in Philadelphia after his home burst into flames, according to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Charles Harris and three others jumped from the home’s second floor. Harris succumbed to severe burns three days later.

“We have been working on Harold Staten’s case in various ways for over a decade and are elated that he is now home with his family to start the next chapter of his life after nearly 4 decades of wrongful incarceration,” the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which filed the petition for his release, told ABC News in a statement.

Staten’s conviction decades ago was based on science that was considered flawed by a judge on Monday and conflicting testimonies from a teenager after the fire, according to the district attorney’s office. Staten was serving a life sentence without parole for arson, second-degree murder and other related charges.

“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,” Assistant District Attorney Carry Wood told ABC News in a statement. “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.”

The DA’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) began to review Staten’s petition for relief in 2022 after the Pennsylvania Innocence Project filed a Post Conviction Relief Act petition, according to the district attorney’s office. The CIU retained a forensic expert who concluded that the original cause determinations of the fire were not supportable under modern fire investigation standards and the cause of the fire should be considered undetermined, rather than arson.

The original determination of the use of a fire accelerant was due to the heavy damage and the fire pattern on the floor in the entryway. Both are not actually evidence of anything more than a fire had occurred, according to the district attorney’s office.

“Fire investigation experts for both the defense and the Commonwealth independently concluded that the tragic fire that led to Mr. Staten’s conviction should never have been classified as an arson,” The Pennsylvania Innocence Project told ABC News. “Not only was Mr. Staten wrongly convicted, but it is likely that no crime even occurred.”

The rowhouse on North Percy Street in Philadelphia erupted into flames at approximately 3:38 a.m. on Oct. 30, 1984, according to the district attorney’s office. Harris, his partner, Marion DeBose, her daughter Juanita and a tenant Robert Williams leaped from a window on the second floor to escape. Harris later died from his burns.

The prosecutors who first tried Staten said he started the fire because of an argument over a can of missing bug spray, according to the district attorney’s office. Prosecutors stated that he poured an accelerant into the house’s front entrance to start the fire.

Witness testimony that put Staten at the scene was challenged in earlier, unsuccessful attempts to throw out his conviction. After the fire, a 17-year-old girl, initially said she didn’t see Staten near the house within the timeframe of the fire, but in an interview afterwards, she said she saw Staten near the front entrance of the home, according to the district attorney’s office. The teen also admitted to using cocaine the night of the incident, the district attorney’s office added.

Information was uncovered that would contest the 17-year-old’s credibility years later, including testimony from her roommate that the prosecution’s witness was severely intoxicated the night of the fire, according to the district attorney’s office.

Staten did not immediately return ABC News’ request for a statement or interview.

“Ultimately it was Mr. Staten’s own relentless efforts to prove his innocence that led to this result,” the Pennsylvania Innocence Project told ABC News.

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