Man exonerated after serving 40 years for deadly Philadelphia house fire

Harold Staten, who is now a great-grandfather, is free after spending decades in prison.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Tuesday, February 6, 2024
Man exonerated after serving 40 years for deadly Philadelphia house fire
Man exonerated after serving 40 years for deadly Philadelphia house fire

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- A man convicted in a deadly Philadelphia house fire four decades ago is now free.

Attorneys say the evidence doesn't add up by today's standards. Therefore, in court on Monday, 71-year-old Harold Staten was exonerated after his conviction was vacated.

The deadly fire he was accused of starting happened in a row home on the 3000 block of North Percy Street in North Philadelphia just after 3:30 a.m. on October 30, 1984.

Four people had to jump from the second story to escape. One of those victims later died from injuries he sustained in the fire.

In 1986, police arrested Staten on charges of arson and second-degree murder. He was convicted of the crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

It's a conviction the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia vacated on Monday.

"There were tears, happiness and joy," said Pennsylvania Innocence Project Legal Director Nilam Sanghvi, who worked on the case and was in the courtroom when the judge decided to vacate the conviction.

It's a move with which the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office agrees.

"The judge agreed to vacate his conviction, and the D.A. moved to immediately dismiss all the charges," said Sanghvi.

Staten was also present in the court, along with family members who'd come to hear the judge's decision.

"He found out in real-time and was very moved by it," said Sanghvi.

Staten was immediately released from custody. He left court and had dinner with his family and his legal team from The Pennsylvania Innocence Project.

"Mr. Staten wrote to us asking for help and that kicked off over decade-long review," said Sanghvi.

Attorneys found flaws in the original evidence. For instance: even though the Lieutenant Fire Marshal at the time classified the fire as arson, there was no evidence of an accelerant.

There were also issues with the credibility of two witnesses, including a 17-year-old girl.

"She had been intoxicated, and that she was asleep in bed and could not have seen what she said she saw," said the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office Conviction Integrity Unit Assistant Supervisor Carrie Wood.

The Conviction Integrity Unit took a second look at the case and had one of the nation's top fire investigators look at the evidence.

"A judge determined that if the jury heard this evidence, they would likely reach a different verdict," said Sanghvi.

"You cannot have someone sitting in prison when the science says what we said at trial was wrong," said Wood.

Now, after nearly 40 years, Staten - who is now a great-grandfather - is finally free.

"He's really looking forward to reconnecting with his family."

The 6abc Data Team found, since 1989, there have been at least 125 exonerations in Pennsylvania courts, including 75 in Philadelphia.