A man has been released from prison after serving 35 years of his unjust sentence, thanks to the repetition of an old episode of MythBusters (Myth Busters), with which he was able to scientifically prove his innocence: the program taught him that you could not light a puddle of gasoline with a lit cigarette, something that the person involved, Juan Galvan, had been accused of doing in the 1980s, resulting in the deaths of two men in Chicago.
John Galvan had been in prison for 21 years when he happened to see a rerun of the Discovery Channel, Myth Busters, in 2007. To their surprise and delight, in the episode – which focused on busting Hollywood myths by attempting to scientifically recreate movie scenes – the show’s hosts, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, attempted to use a cigarette to light a puddle of gasoline. . Their attempt failed miserably, and the duo came to the conclusion that this common scenario in action movies is not really possible.
Lawyers from the Innocence Project defend Galvan
From that point on, Galvan’s story slowly began to change: fifteen years after seeing the episode, and after hard legal work, Galván and his lawyers from the Innocence Project managed to convince a judge to overturn his conviction and of two other men who had also been found guilty.
“Honestly, it was shocking to me… I feel like we’ve all seen movies where they light gasoline on the street with a cigarette and the car explodes,” explained Galván’s lawyer, Tara Thompson, in an article published on the web. from Innocence Project. “I had never really given much thought to whether or not that could be real.”
“When I saw this episode of Myth Bustersas a lawyer, it made me realize that there are things you have to dig into: you can’t take science for granted until you’ve researched it,” she added.
Fire in Chicago
In September 1986, two brothers died in an apartment fire in southwest Chicago. Two other brothers managed to escape the fire and told authorities they believed the fire was set by a neighbor in retaliation for their brother’s death, allegedly at the hands of a street gang known as the Latin Kings, explains the Innocence Project.
The neighbor was interviewed, but pointed to 18-year-old John Galvan, his brother, and a third neighbor. Other neighbors also accused the three, and John, who was sleeping at his grandmother’s house at the time of the fire, was arrested without any other evidence to implicate him. Similarly, the other two involved were arrested.
According to the Innocence Project, using force and deceptive interrogation techniques, police told Galván that he could go home if he ratted out the other detainees. Galván also assured that, while he affirmed his innocence, he was beaten by the detective who was directing the interrogation and that they told him that they would apply the death penalty if he did not confess.
Eventually, the three defendants, exhausted by detectives promising they could go home if they did, signed documents pleading guilty to arson and first-degree murder, for which they were sentenced to life in prison.
Discovery Channel’s MythBusters Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage at M5 Industries in San Francisco, California.
Light Molotov cocktail with a cigarette
Although Galván never gave up proving his innocence, it took two decades and an episode of Myth Busters to prove that he had not caused the fire.
The key point that helped him annul his conviction was in Galván’s own statement, in which he stated that he had lit a Molotov cocktail with a cigarette. But, as the Innocence Project explains, the episode of MythBusters showed that this was not possible.
“There it was,” Galvan said. “I remember being excited, feeling extremely happy…I felt like all of this was finally starting to come to light,” he added.
Digging deeper, they found even more evidence to back up what the TV show had shown. That same year, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) conducted experiments in lighting gasoline with cigarettes. They made 2,000 attempts to ignite the gasoline under different conditions and were never successful. They too concluded that it simply wasn’t possible.
“Despite what you see in action movies, dropping a lit cigarette into a trail of gasoline will not ignite it, assuming oxygen levels are normal and there are no unusual circumstances,” said Richard Tontarski, a forensic scientist and then head of the ATF fire investigation lab.
“That’s because the gasoline has limited contact with the hottest, brightest part of the ash, and X-ray thermography has shown it to be very localized,” he added.
Galván’s legal team obtains his exoneration
Finally, thanks to arson experts attesting to the impossibility of igniting gasoline with cigarettes, and several witnesses testifying that the policeman who took the statements had resorted to violent coercion elsewhere, Galván’s legal team was able to his exemption. A few years later, on his own appeals, all three convictions were overturned.
“Mr. Galván’s case speaks to the critical importance of establishing these mechanisms so that people can go back to court when the science changes or evolves, or when experts repudiate prior testimony,” Rebecca Brown, director of policy of the Innocence Project.
“Without these mechanisms, in many cases, innocent people are prevented from presenting forensic evidence of their innocence after their wrongful conviction,” he concluded.
Although Galván cannot make up for the 35 years he has lost and does not deny the difficulty of trying to adapt to a new world, he is looking forward to having his own space to call home.
Edited by Felipe Espinosa Wang.
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