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Judge hears new evidence attorneys hope will clear Claude Garrett’s murder conviction

Claude Garrett
Posted at 8:35 PM, Apr 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 00:41:29-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A jury convicted Claude Garrett of killing his girlfriend when their home caught fire in 1992 and now Judge Monte Watkins will decide if there was ever enough evidence to suggest Garrett intentionally set the fire.

Sunny Eaton and Nashville’s Conviction Review Unit, along with the Tennessee Innocence Project called expert witnesses to the stand to give their take on evidence.

“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 Jessica Van Dyke of the Tennessee Innocence Project.

Each expert specialized in fire investigations and noted how much had changed with fire analysis over nearly 30 years.

Investigators say they no longer use outdated terms like “pour pattern” because it’s not a reliable way of determining if someone poured accelerant to ignite a fire.

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.

Experts said there’s not enough evidence to suggest Garrett poured the kerosene. They say it’s plausible that Garrett may have knocked into some kerosene containers on the way out because the home had kerosene heaters, but there was still no sign of the oil on Garrett's clothing.

Eaton explained how the department conducted dozens of interviews and analyzed witness statements for more than two years to land at this conclusion.

“The one question. The most important question we ask is what happened to Lorie Lance? It’s a question we may never know the answer to. In part because of the faulty investigation and because so many fires are left with an undetermined cause,” Eaton said.

Garrett maintains that he’s not sure why Lorie Lee Lance ran to the utility room, instead of following him out of the home. Firefighters found Lance's body in that room with some suggesting the door was locked.

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 simply 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 door remained intact after firefighters put out the flames. Whether or not the door was locked was noted in the CRU’s 53-page report from last fall 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.

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.

Smith argued that the CRU was more focused on vacating convictions as opposed to real victims like her sister.

“I hope this can be reviewed and maybe a third-party step in and look over these things and concerns that we have because I don’t feel that Lorie’s side has been told,” Smith said.

She told us she had only heard about the CRU's interest in the case last fall, although this investigation was years in the making. Eaton says they've been in contact since early 2021 and spent hours on the phone for months.

"I took every single one of their concerns into account in our investigation," Eaton said.

There’s no timetable on when we can expect a decision from Judge Watkins on whether to vacate the conviction.

Eaton has made it clear that if the conviction is overturned, she does not believe the state has enough to pursue another trial against Garrett.

“Our analysis has shown us that there is new scientific evidence unheard by a jury that dismantles all evidence of Mr. Garrett’s guilt in this case. That if the state had been armed with the information we now have both about the investigation and scientific developments, we would not have indicted this case,” Eaton said.

Garrett remains in custody where he continues to serve a life sentence. If his conviction is overturned, he could be a free man after nearly 30 years behind bars.