Chicago Facing Wrongful Conviction Suit by Man Falsely Accused of Arson

A 39-year-old man who was wrongfully convicted of setting a fatal fire in 1993 when he was just 14, is now suing those he claims were responsible for manufacturing a false case against him, including the City of Chicago and a city fire marshal.

Adam Gray was convicted of arson and murder in 1996 for the March 25, 1993 fire that killed Peter McGuiness, 54, and his sister, Margaret Mesa, 74. Gray was sentenced as an adult to life without parole. That conviction was over turned in 2017 based in part on advances in fire science that dispelled old-school beliefs about indicators of arson. Gray, who spent 24 years behind bars, was finally free.

Last week, Gray filed suit in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The suit names the city of Chicago, a former prosecutor, eight former Chicago police officers (5 of whom are now deceased), and a former Fire Marshal, Joseph Gruszka.

From the complaint:

  • Plaintiff Adam Gray spent the majority of his life—over 24 years—in prison for an arson-double murder that he did not commit.
  • Gray was convicted in 1996 of setting fire to a building which resulted in two deaths.
  • He was convicted after the Defendants manipulated witnesses, fabricated evidence, and withheld evidence that would have demonstrated his absolute innocence of setting the fire.
  • Included among that fabricated evidence was an involuntary false confession attributed to Plaintiff, which was concocted and coerced by Defendants after hours of illegal interrogation.
  • During this interrogation, Plaintiff, then barely past his 14th birthday, was prevented from seeing or talking to his mother and adult brother, who were at the police station trying to talk to him.
  • Instead, Defendants falsely told Plaintiff that his brother came to the police station briefly and left and that his mother told police that she did not care about him and refused to come to the police station altogether.
  • In truth, Plaintiff’s mother and brother waited at the police station for hours and repeatedly asked Defendants to see Plaintiff but were denied while Defendants were attempting to—and finally successful in—obtaining a false, involuntary confession from Plaintiff.
  • To corroborate Plaintiff’s false, involuntary confession, Defendants also fabricated evidence, including a milk jug which they claimed contained gasoline used to set the fire.
  • In truth, the jug did not contain gasoline, could not have been used to set the fire, and both the relevance of the jug and Plaintiff’s confession to the use of the jug to carry gasoline to set the fire were entirely concocted by Defendants.
  • Additionally, to buttress the false confession and fabricated evidence, the Defendants fabricated arson evidence.
  • Defendants manufactured bogus “findings” to corroborate their knowingly false claim that the fire was an arson.
  • Just as with the confession, witness statements, and milk jug, the Defendants knew this evidence was false but nonetheless used it to wrongfully detain and convict Plaintiff.
  • As a result of the Defendants’ misconduct, Plaintiff was wrongfully convicted of arson and murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
  • He was a 14-year-old boy at the time of his arrest and only 17 years old at the time of his conviction and sentence.
  • In May 2017, Plaintiff’s conviction was vacated, his charges were dismissed, and he was finally exonerated.
  • Plaintiff now seeks justice for the harm that the Defendants have caused and redress for the loss of liberty and the terrible hardship that he has endured and continues to suffer as a result of Defendants’ misconduct.

The 11-count complaint contains a variety of federal and state law claims, including violations of Gray’s 5th and 14th Amendment rights, malicious prosecution, conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights, civil conspiracy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It accuses the defendants of manipulating witnesses, manufacturing evidence, and withholding exculpatory evidence.

In particular, Fire Marshal Gruzka along with Detective Rokosik are accused of claiming:

  • that the cause of the fire was the use of an accelerant based on the presence of heavy charring, shiny blistering, and “alligatoring” on the wooden porch and stairs, and that the origin for the fire was the enclosed rear porch and stairs of the building.
  • Defendants Rokosik and Gruszka made these claims even though they knew they were false.
  • At the time Defendants Rokosik and Gruszka made these claims, they knew that there is no correlation between heavy charring, shiny blistering, or alligatoring of wood and the use of an accelerant.
  • They knew that charred wood is likely to be found in all structure fires, and that heavy blistering merely indicated direct flame contact with the wood.
  • Defendants Rokosik and Gruszka also knew, in 1993, based on their familiarity with NPFA 921 and other then-existing standards for fire investigation, that fire investigators should not claim indications of accelerant on the basis of appearance of the char alone.
  • Defendant Rokosik took two samples of debris from the fire scene for laboratory testing.
  • The laboratory testing revealed that both samples were negative for gasoline

Here is a copy of the complaint: Gray v Chicago

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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