Kenneth “Kenny” Richey is a British-US citizen who was charged with the murder of Cynthia Collins following a severe fire in an Ohio apartment block. Despite Richey being convicted and spending two decades on death row, there were severe concerns relating to the evidence used to prosecute.
In the early hours of the morning of 30th June 1986, a fire broke out in a second-floor apartment in Columbus Grove, Ohio. The apartment belonged to Hope Collins and her 2-year-old daughter Cynthia. Hope was not present at the time of the fire, having spent the night with her boyfriend. It was not an uncommon occurrence for Hope to leave her daughter alone, and there were allegations that Hope had given the infant adult sleeping pills on numerous occasions. The fire had spread quickly, and before fire fighters could extinguish the flames, Cynthia died of asphyxia due to smoke inhalation.
Hope denied fault and maintained that, following a party that evening, she had left Cynthia in the care of her friend Kenny Richey. However Richey insisted that he had not agreed to babysit and two other witnesses, Hope’s boyfriend and another friend, agreed that Hope had not asked Richey to stay with the child. There is much dispute over this exchange. Another resident of the building also witnessed the scene and claimed that Richey had drunkenly stumbled into a bush and then out of view. Furthermore, when Hope was later informed of the fire she did not mentioned a babysitter to the police.
The fire investigation started with the local fire chief, who had previously examined the flat following the suspicious appearance of smoke. The fire chief concluded that the fire had been caused by an electric fan and ordered the charred contents of the apartment to be removed before the state fire marshal then took over the investigation. The fire marshal declared that he suspected the incident was arson.
Kenny Richey soon became the prime suspect and, despite his plea of innocence, was charged with breaking and entering, arson, aggravated murder, and child endangerment. It was believed that Richey held a grudge against his ex-girlfriend who lived below Hope’s flat. He set fire to the flat using accelerants, suspected to have been stolen from a nearby shed, hoping that the fire would burn through the floor into his ex’s flat, before escaping over the balcony. Richey was charged based on a number of primary pieces of evidence. Forensic analysis was conducted on carpet retrieved from the flat, which showed evidence of petrol and paint thinner along with distinct “pour patterns”. The smoke detectors in the apartment were found hanging from the ceiling by their metal wires, indicating they had been disconnected. Furthermore, various witnesses gave evidence. Another tenant in the apartment block, Shirley Baker, claimed to have heard Richey saying that “Building A was going to burn”. After the fire, another witness, Juanita Altimus, claimed that she had heard Richey bragging about the incident, saying he “did a good job”. Numerous mental health professionals stated that the suspect suffered from borderline personality disorder, that he had the emotional age of a child, and that he often lied to manipulate mental evaluation results.
The prosecutor on the case declared that he was seeking the death penalty, which attracted a great deal of media attention. It is suspected that the prosecutor, who was running for the position of county judge, was using the high profile case to support his campaign. Richey was offered a plea bargain, offering a reduced sentence if the suspect pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. However Richey refused. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by electric chair.
Richey was on death row for 21 years, during which time substantial doubts were raised over the forensic evidence used in the case, leading to the re-examine of the evidence.
The sampling of debris had not taken place at the scene but had been conducted after the contents had been removed from the flat, some of which had been sat outside in the car park near a petrol pump. The gas chromatography methodology used by prosecution experts to analyse the samples had apparently never been peer-reviewed, and there has been concern over the quality of the chromatographs produced. The defence hired a metallurgist as their expert witness, a man with only four days training in arson investigation and a limited time to investigate. Additionally, another expert stated that the burn patterns found in the apartment could have occurred naturally. Prosecution claimed that the fact that smoke detectors found hanging by their metal wires suggested foul play, however detectors are commonly found in this condition following fires as plastic components holding the device in place are melted. The deceased child apparently had a history of starting fires in the flat, and the fire department had been called to the premises numerous times. However the defence was not informed of this.
In 2007 Richey eventually made a no contest plea bargain, neither admitting to nor refuting the charges, and was freed the following year.
BBC News: Death Row Scot Kenny Richey Admits Threatening Judge [online] Available at: [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-17712756]
TC Forensics: Kenny Richey [online] Available at: [http://www.tcforensic.com.au/features/richey.html]
The Case of Kenny Richey [online] Available at: [http://www.j12.org/ps/richey.htm]