Schenectady Prevails In Wrongful Arson Prosecution Case

A federal court has dismissed a wrongful arrest and prosecution suit filed by a man who spent nine-months in prison for a 2013 fatal fire in Schenectady, New York. Robert Bulter was charged with setting the May 2, 2013 fire that killed four people including three children, and severely injured a 5-year old.

Charges against Bulter were dropped when a new suspect, Edward Leon, was identified. Leon has never been charged. Bulter sued the city and federal investigators in December, 2016. Several of Bulter’s claims were dismissed in 2018. Here is a copy of that ruling.

Butler’s main argument was that the evidence against him consisted primarily of statements from two witnesses, Jennica Duell and Brian Fish, that investigators should not have relied upon. Both Duell and Fish were coerced by investigators to change their testimony to implicate Butler. In a ruling handed down March 23, 2020, US District Court Judge Mae A. D’Agostino concluded that the investigators had probable cause to arrest and charge Butler despite the questionable testimony of the two witnesses. She also found that when ATF took over the investigation the agents diligently pursued all available leads, including a full investigation of Leon that ultimately led to charges against Butler being dismissed. From the decision:

  • Duell and Fish were far from ideal witnesses who told varying accounts as to what transpired on May 2, 2013.
  • However, even as inconsistencies developed in their stories during the days and weeks following the fire, Duell and Fish never wavered from the core of their account — i.e., that they traveled from Saratoga to Schenectady with Plaintiff and that Plaintiff started the fire.
  • To the extent that inconsistencies did develop, they were in the details of how they got there (who drove, the color of the car, the route that they took, etc.).
  • These inconsistencies, and the possibility that someone else might have been responsible for the fire, do not change that fact that the Schenectady Defendants had probable cause to arrest and file the felony complaint against Plaintiff.
  • Even assuming that the Schenectady Defendants lacked probable cause to arrest and charge Plaintiff, they undoubtedly had arguable probable cause and are therefore entitled to qualified immunity.
  • The evidence … clearly indicate that the Schenectady Defendants, during the few days they were involved in Plaintiff’s prosecution, held “knowledge or reasonably trustworthy information of facts and circumstances that are sufficient to warrant a person of reasonable caution in the belief that the person to be arrested has committed or is committing a crime.”
  • Accordingly, the Court grants the Schenectady Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on this alternative ground.
  • Additionally, nothing in the record supports Plaintiff’s argument that the ATF Defendants failed to make further inquiry where a reasonable person would have done so, in particular with respect to Edward Leon as a potential suspect and with inconsistencies in Duell’s and Fish’s stories.
  • Based on [the] evidence and contrary to Plaintiff’s allegations, it is clear that the ATF Defendants did not fail to make further inquiry into other evidence and matters where a reasonable officer would have.
  • Rather, in spite of the testimony of Duell and Fish consistently implicating Plaintiff, and the other evidence that supported their original version of what transpired on May 2, 2013, the ATF Defendants continued to pursue all leads potentially implicating Leon in the fire.
  • While there were minor inconsistencies in Duell and Fish’s version of events, they did not waver from the core of their account and these inconsistencies are insufficient to find a lack of actual or arguable probable cause.

Here is a copy of the decision.

For the investigators out there (including police officers), there is a lot more for you in this case that I am not going to get into here. My advice is to read the decision. It is a good example of the dilemma created when a well-intentioned investigator believes a key witness is lying, and pressures the witness to conform their statement to align with the investigator’s theory of the case, only to later discover that the witness was telling the truth before changing their story. Now your key witness is a liability to the case should another theory emerge.

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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