Another Wrongful Conviction Arson Case – NY This Time

A New York man who served over eight years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of arson, will be allow to continue his false arrest, malicious prosecution and civil rights suit against numerous defendants including two fire departments and four firefighters.

William Haughey filed suit in 2018, naming Putnam County, Putnam County Fire Department, the Town of Carmel, Carmel Fire Department, Putman County Fire Inspectors Robert Geoghegan and Robert Efferen, Carmel Fire Chief Daryl Johnson, Putnam County Fire Department member Dough Casey, along with police officers and others involved in his arrest and conviction. The defendants include Anthony F. Porto, Sr. and Anthony M. Porto, Jr., owners and operators of Smalley’s Inn & Restaurant, where the fire occurred.

The suit alleged eight causes of action, which were described by US District Court Judge  Kenneth M. Karas as:

  1. evidence manufacturing and denial of a fair trial under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments, against all non-municipal Defendants,
  2. wrongful arrest and detention under the Fourth Amendment … against all non-municipal Defendants;
  3. malicious prosecution and deprivation of liberty under the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments, against all non-municipal Defendants;
  4. failure to intervene (with respect to Plaintiff’s false arrest, detention and prosecution) under the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, against Behan, Dearman, Johnson, and Does 1-5;
  5. denial of a fair trial under the Fifth, Sixth, Fourteenth Amendments… against all non-municipal Defendants;
  6. similar claims as all of the above, under Monell … against Carmel;
  7. similar claims as all of the above, under Monell, against Putnam;
  8. civil rights conspiracy claims, against all Defendants

The facts as alleged in Haughey’s complaint, and explained by Judge Karas:

  • On March 10, 2007, Plaintiff was a patron at Smalley’s Inn in Carmel, New York.
  • During the late night, an electrical problem created a small fire in the bathroom ceiling.
  • Plaintiff and several others smelled smoke, ran into the bathroom and quickly extinguished the fire.
  • On March 11, 2007, the Portos falsely reported to the Carmel Police Department that Plaintiff “had intentionally set the fire in the bathroom ceiling.”
  • At the time of the incident, Plaintiff was renting an apartment from, and on the verge of litigation with, a close friend and business partner of the Portos.
  • The Portos were prominent business owners with well-known close ties in the law enforcement community.
  • Within hours of the false report, Nagle [a Carmel police detective] arrived at the Inn, and the Portos informed him that Plaintiff started the fire.
  • Nagle requested assistance from the Carmel Fire Department and Putnam’s Bureau of Emergency Services.
  • Johnson, Geoghegan, Efferen, Fischer, Casey, and Does 1-5 responded to the scene.
  • Nagle informed the responding officials that Plaintiff set the fire and that there were witnesses who told him that Plaintiff “placed paper towels between the drop ceiling and the ceiling and lit the paper on fire.”
  • However, no witness made any such statement.
  • Johnson, Geoghegan, Efferen, and Does 1-5 then concluded that the fire was the product of arson.
  • Dearman, Fischer, and Nagle arrested Plaintiff for arson.
  • In connection with this arrest, the Putnam Fire Investigation Team’s field notes falsely represented that they had eliminated all electrical systems, appliances, and accidental sources as causes for the fire.
  • Similarly, Geoghegan and Johnson prepared reports asserting that they “had thoroughly examin[ed] the physical evidence” and “rul[ed] out all possible accidental and natural causes.”
  • Based on these reports and omissions, the Putnam D.A. presented charges against Plaintiff to a grand jury, which then received false testimony from Nagle implicating Plaintiff.
  • The grand jury indicted Plaintiff for arson in the second degree and criminal mischief, and Plaintiff was held pending trial.
  • At trial, Geoghegan testified that the fire was not caused “electrically,” “accidentally,” “mechanically,” or “naturally,” but was “incendiary in nature.”
  • On April 16, 2008, Plaintiff was “convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
  • Afterward, the Portos … filed “several knowingly false, inflated[] insurance claims alleging P[laintiff] had started the fire in Smalley’s [Inn]” and recovered “substantial sums” based on those claims.
  • In 2013, after losing each of his state court appeals, Plaintiff commenced a federal habeas corpus proceeding challenging his conviction before Judge Vincent I. Briccetti in the Southern District of New York.
  • Proceeding pro se, Plaintiff submitted two reports from fire experts “who had examined the evidence in P[laintiff’s] case and concluded [that] it was impossible to conclude that an arson had occurred or to rule out an electrical cause of the fire.”
  • On May 5, 2016, Putnam County District Attorney Robert Tendy submitted to Judge Briccetti his view that Plaintiff was “innocent, had been wrongfully convicted, and should be removed from prison immediately.”
  • Tendy explained that the Putnam D.A. had thoroughly reviewed the case, including Plaintiff’s submissions and the report of an additional expert retained by the Putnam D.A., and concluded that Plaintiff had spent years in prison “for helping to put out a fire—not start one.”
  • The Putnam D.A. explained that there was “ample evidence that the fire may been electrical,” and that video evidence recorded that night “clearly belied many of the assertions made by the prosecution witnesses.”
  • The Putnam D.A. also conceded that crime scene photographs that Plaintiff argued were suppressed were, in fact, material and exculpatory.
  • The Putnam D.A. consented to Plaintiff’s request for relief, and on May 9, 2016, Judge Briccetti ordered Plaintiff’s release from prison.
  • At a May 23, 2016 hearing before Judge Briccetti, the Putnam D.A. agreed on the record that Plaintiff “was actually innocent of the offenses of which he was convicted,” that Geoghegan’s conclusion that the fire was an arson “was fundamentally flawed,” and that “no witness observed [Plaintiff] put anything into the space above the bathroom ceiling tiles.”
  • At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Briccetti granted Plaintiff’s habeas petition, vacated his conviction, dismissed his indictment with prejudice, and permanently enjoined his retrial.

The defendants filed numerous motions to dismiss Haughey’s suit. It is beyond the scope of this post to explain them all – but I would encourage the Legal Eagles who are interested to read the entire decision. In dealing with the motions, Judge Karas denied most of them, but granted dismissals in favor of four defendants. Judge Karas granted Haughey 30 days to amend his complaint to address the shortcomings that led to the four dismissals.

For those who have been keeping track, this is the FOURTH wrongful prosecution and THIRD wrongful conviction case involving arson charges I have covered in the past 20 days. And no I am not looking for these cases… they are finding me. I am interested to hear from any arson investigators or prosecutors who might be able to shed some light on what is going on.

Here is a copy of the decision:

Here is a copy of the original complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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