NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Judge Monte Watkins signed the order to vacate Claude Garrett’s 1992 murder conviction, one month after arson experts said it's unlikely Garrett sparked the fire which killed Lorie Lee Lance.
The Tennessee Department of Corrections tells NewsChannel 5 they intended to release Garrett from prison, the moment they receive the order.
Nashville’s District Attorney’s Office shared the following statement:
"Following an extensive collaborative investigation between the Nashville District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit and the Tennessee Innocence Project, Claude Garrett has been exonerated for the wrongful conviction of the murder of Lorie Lance," DA spokesperson Steve Hayslip said. "New scientific evidence presented to the Court by both Mr. Garrett’s counsel and the State proved the conviction to be based on outdated investigative methods and baseless conclusions. Claude Garrett has always maintained his innocence. Last week, Judge Watkins vacated Mr. Garrett’s convictions and today, DA Glenn Funk’s office dismissed all charges against him."
Sunny Eaton and Nashville’s Conviction Review Unit along with the Tennessee Innocence Project, worked together on the case to bring new experts forward last month.
It’s not every day both sides of the aisle agree, but many of the arguments made by attorney Jessica Van Dyke were later echoed by Eaton in her statements.
“The investigation in 1992 was dramatically different. Marred by misconceptions that are no longer present if we use the scientific method and modern science,” said Van Dyke of the Tennessee Innocence Project.
These fire experts noted how much had changed with fire analysis over nearly 30 years and say they no longer rely on outdated terms like “pour pattern.” They say it’s not a reliable way of determining if someone poured an accelerant to ignite a fire, however, investigators at the time appeared certain this was damning evidence.
Dr. Candace Ashby said that back in 1992, investigators relied mainly on what they could see instead of scientific data. ATF Agent James Cooper suggested Garrett may have poured kerosene to accelerate the fire from the living room to the back of the home because of the irregular burn patterns on the floor.
Attorneys now say Cooper failed to consider the phenomenon known as flashover or full room involvement. It’s a transition phase where fire spreads rapidly near ventilation openings, causing irregular burn patterns.
Most recent experts say there’s not enough evidence to suggest Garrett poured kerosene found in the home. They say it’s more plausible that Garrett may have knocked into some kerosene as he fled the Old Hickory home he shared with Lance.
Eaton said that after dozens of interviews and analyzing statements for more than two years, no one may never know the answer as to what happened to Lorie Lance.
“In part because of the faulty investigation and because so many fires are left with an undetermined cause,” Eaton said.
The CRU’s 53-page report from last fall pointed to a latch on the door Lance was found behind as “the most crucial piece of evidence throughout this case.”
They say if the latch was intentionally closed during the fire before firefighters arrived, this case would be closed. That’s because there would be no way for Lance to lock herself in the room. The focus would then shift to the only other person in the home at the time.
Dr. Ashby said it would have been virtually impossible for a firefighter to manipulate the sliding latch with the gear they were wearing, before opening the door to find Lance. She says it’s much more probable that firefighters opened the door. Had it been locked, she says they would’ve forced their way through.
“We would knock it down. If we couldn’t unlock it, we would be under pressure as far as time,” Ashby said.
The CRU report claims Agent Cooper, “failed to preserve the latch and photographed minimally, if at all,” even though it was a key part of the investigation.
The report from Metro Nashville Police Detective David Miller stated that firefighter Captain Otis Jenkins told him the door was not locked.
An appeals court later determined that then ADA John Zimmerman did not offer Detective Miller’s report to the defense. This led to a retrial in 2003 which ultimately returned the same guilty verdict.
Lance’s sister Hayley Smith says she’s spoken with Captain Jenkins on numerous occasions, and he’s convinced he told detectives that the door was locked.
While Dr. Ashby testified that the presence of carbon buildup inside the lock barrel suggests the door was not locked, Smith says this could have happened after.
“There are other explanations besides what they had come up with that are more valid of how the carbon deposits on the door and the lock got there,” Smith said.