On August 29, 1972, an apartment building in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, went up in flames, bringing an end to the lives of two of its residents. Less than five months later, a jury found Letita Smallwood (her family calls her Teri), a 20 year-old college student with no criminal record, guilty of arson and two counts of first-degree murder. No physical evidence or eyewitness testimony directly linked Ms. Smallwood to the crime, yet she received a life sentence with no possibility of parole. In April, 2015, the Pennsylvania Innocence Project secured Teri a new trial by showing the fire investigator’s trial testimony was unreliable. Teri was released on bail pending the Commonwealth’s appeal of that decision and a potential new trial.
The Fire: Ms. Smallwood had been staying at the James Wilson Hotel, across the street from an apartment occupied by Robert Michael Baltimore and his girlfriend, Paula Wagner. On the night of the fire, Ms. Smallwood had gone out to get cigarettes and she was later awoken by a friend and informed that the apartments across the street were on fire. Ms. Wagner and another resident died in the fire, while Mr. Baltimore was injured.
Police began to suspect Ms. Smallwood of arson shortly after the fire. Investigators learned that Ms. Smallwood had been seeing Mr. Baltimore. Investigators presumed the relationship between Ms. Wagner and Mr. Baltimore to be Ms. Smallwood’s motive for setting the fire.
Witnesses claimed there was an argument between Ms. Wagner and Ms. Smallwood inside of the third floor apartment the afternoon before the fire. Another witness claimed to have seen Ms. Smallwood outside of the apartment building the night of the fire. Ms. Smallwood denied that she was ever inside of or directly outside of the apartment on August 28, 1972. Two other witnesses, along with Ms. Smallwood, claimed that Ms. Smallwood was on Dickinson College’s campus that night, not in front of the apartment building.
After the fire, Ms. Smallwood visited Mr. Baltimore in the hospital. Witnesses there claimed they heard Ms. Smallwood say, “It’s all my fault,” or “I am responsible for him being here,” and one witness in particular claimed that Ms. Smallwood admitted to the fire while at the hospital, saying, “It’s because of me the fire started.” The one witness who claimed he heard Ms. Smallwood admit to the fire is now uncertain about what he heard that day. Ms. Smallwood has denied that she admitted to the fire and says her words that day were based off of the idea that if she and Mr. Baltimore had been on better terms he would have been with her, away from the fire and out of harm’s way.
Fire Science Evolves: At the time of Ms. Smallwood’s conviction, there was no uniform standard for state or local fire investigators. Fire investigation was not even considered a science but was viewed as a form of “art.” The original investigator of the apartment building fire, a Pennsylvania state trooper, relied heavily on witness statements to determine the origin of the fire. He concluded that there were two points of origin, that is, separate fires on both the second and third floors, and that the fire must have been intentionally set by a person.
Ms. Smallwood consistently denied she had any motive to harm Ms. Wagner and had accepted that Ms. Wagner and Mr. Baltimore were living together. She testified at her trial that she had not set the fire.
At the time of her trial, Ms. Smallwood’s defense attorney did not hire an expert to refute the arson investigator’s claims. In 1992 the National Fire Protection Association published the first edition of an evolving guide used for investigating fires and explosions, which began codifying principles of fire investigation that relied on the scientific method. Based on the immense advancements in fire investigation that have occurred over the last forty years as reflected in the NFPA’s guide for fire investigation, Dr. Jason A. Sutula, an expert in the field of fire investigation, concluded in 2014 that to deem the fire arson was premature and inaccurate. The investigation conducted by police failed to include any physical evidence, there were no samples taken to determine if an accelerant had been utilized, and the photographs taken were strictly exterior shots of the building which can provide no insight into origin or cause. It is Dr. Sutula’s expert opinion that the cause of this particular fire should be labeled as undetermined.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project began working with Ms. Smallwood after she wrote to us in 2009 asking for assistance in proving her innocence. In March 2014, Ms. Smallwood filed a Petition for Post-Conviction Relief in the Common Pleas Court of Cumberland County based on the advances in fire science and arson investigation that constitute newly-discovered evidence.
Teri’s Release: On April 20, 2015 Judge Edward E. Guido ordered Ms. Smallwood’s petition and ordered a new trial. The Commonwealth has appealed Guido’s decision to Pennsylvania Superior Court. At 62 years old, after serving 42 years in incarceration, Ms. Smallwood was released on bail and resides in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, with her aunt where she awaits the outcome of the appeal.
The Pennsylvania Innocence Project is lucky to be joined in litigating this case by co-counsel Joshua Snyder of Boni & Zack LLC, the recipient of the Project’s 2015 Edward D. Ohlbaum Volunteer Award.