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Board rejects clemency for Ohio man facing execution over son's arson death

A man sentenced to death for intentionally setting a blaze that killed his 3-year-old son was denied clemency on Wednesday by the Ohio Parole Board, despite his attorneys' arguments that there was another viable suspect and that authorities should re-examine the case due to scientific advances made in fire investigation.

Michael Webb, 42, was found guilty of aggravated murder in the death of Michael Patrick Webb in a Nov. 21, 1990. fire in Goshen Township in Ohio (Webb's wife and his three other children survived the blaze). He was also convicted of aggravated arson, attempted aggravated murder and aggravated theft. His lawyers wanted his sentence commuted to life without parole to give him time to pursue a new trial.

In its recommendation to the governor to deny clemency, the Parole Board discounted the possibility of another suspect, saying it would require "an extraordinary stretch of the imagination," and noted that Webb's "stealing money from his daughters' trust fund for years" had created a "powerful motive."

"This crime was very heinous," said the eight-member Parole Board, which voted unanimously. "The courts have reviewed the claim that the prosecutor withheld important evidence, and determined that it is without merit. ... Given the overwhelming evidence of guilt, there is no manifest injustice in this case that would warrant the grant of executive clemency."

Township Fire Chief Virgil Murphy's investigation revealed that gasoline had been poured on the bed of one of Webb's daughters and he smelled it on the bedclothes of his other daughter. Other "trailer" patterns that contained gasoline were found on Michael Patrick's bed and at the base of the bed in the master bedroom, according to the Ohio Supreme Court opinion in the case, the board said.

AP Photo/Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

Undated photo provided by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections of Michael Webb.

The board interviewed Webb on Jan. 13 via video conference from the Chillicothe Correctional Institution. In it, he "asked for clemency claiming that he is innocent of the crime of setting his house on fire and killing his son. He said that he would like to get a new trial and clear his name," the board noted.

Webb's execution, initially set for Feb. 22, has been delayed due to problems with Ohio's lethal injection method. A new date has not been set, said one of Webb's attorneys, Jim Owen.

At a hearing last week on the clemency request, Owen and another attorney for Webb, Keith Yeazel, said the jury was "deprived of two key pieces of evidence" in the case: the information about another suspect and the modern scientific interpretation about the fire's site of origin, according to the board decision.

The site of origin was important because a report, submitted by Webb's attorneys, showed it could have started elsewhere on the first floor -- not just outside the bathroom where Webb was standing. This made "it plausible that someone besides Webb started the fire and that Webb would not have seen the actual arsonist," his lawyers argued, the board said in its finding.

The report, by Texas-based arson expert Gerald Hurst, said the fire chief relied on methods that 20 years of arson science have found unreliable, according to The Associated Press.

However, the Parole Board noted that Hurst's report did "not preclude the state's version of the offense as it indicates that the point of origin of the fire could have been anywhere on the first floor. Therefore, the point of origin could have been the bathroom and the closet as was testified to by (Township Fire) Chief (Virgil E.) Murphy."

Owen said the decision was not “unexpected” and they were working with other lawyers to file a motion for a new trial. He noted that new trials have been granted in cases based on "improper fire science evidence."

“The clemency board really didn’t address the issue we raised, which was that the testimony about the point of the origin of the fire at trial was wrong and not based on science. As a matter of fact in their statement of facts, they cited Murphy’s testimony that we’ve proved was not based on science and that fact is uncontroverted," Owen said. "There’s no scientific expert opinion offered by the state that says that the trial testimony was correct. Every person that’s looked at this and given a scientific opinion concludes that the testimony was wrong.”

Death-penalty cases need a higher standard, than "beyond a reasonable doubt," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which in mid-December reported an "historic drop" in the number of death sentences imposed in the U.S. over the last 15 years.

"With the advancements in science I think these cases do present some doubts ... changes in what the jury would hear today from what they heard at the original trial," he said. "Given the stakes here that the person's life will ride on this decision, I think that should be part of the governor’s ultimate decision, is there any doubt? Is there a lingering doubt?”

In a statement submitted to the board, Webb's ex-wife, Susan Beck, asked for "no leniency" for him, saying he "showed us no mercy on the morning of November 21, 1990."

Looking back at journals she kept for three years after the fire, "it becomes more unbelievable that my family survived what Mike Webb did to us, plus its aftermath. I can't believe we stood behind this murderer ... this baby-killer ... who saturated us with gas, lit us on fire and made no attempt to save us. ... Because of Mike Webb, my dreams of raising a family literally went up in smoke."

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