William “Bill” Amor
William “Bill” Amor walked out of prison on Tuesday, May 30, 2017, after 22 years of incarceration as an innocent man.
Bill was wrongly convicted of the death of his mother-in-law in an apartment fire, which science now shows was likely an accident. Bill’s case is believed to be the first of its kind in Illinois, in which a court granted a new trial, finding that advancements in fire science constitute newly discovered evidence of actual innocence.
On the evening of September 10, 1995, Bill and his wife, Tina, left their Naperville apartment (which they shared with Tina’s mother, Marianne Miceli) to go to a drive-in movie. Shortly thereafter, a fire started in the apartment. Marianne called 911 for help but later tragically died from smoke inhalation.
At the time, authorities believed the fire was suspicious because it was a fast, hot fire and there were no obvious signs of accidental ignition. Police officers suspected Bill from the beginning, confiscating his shoes to check for accelerant. Bill and Tina were questioned over the course of several days. Bill maintained his innocence and made statements to help the investigation.
In 1997, Bill was convicted of murder and aggravated arson, and sentenced to 45 years in prison based on a “confession” now proven false and arson findings that are no longer scientifically reliable.
Bill’s false “confession” came after he had been held in jail for two weeks and immediately followed 15 hours of questioning and being served divorce papers at the station. Bill stated that he had spilled vodka and then knocked a lit cigarette onto the vodka-soaked newspapers. The authorities argued that Bill intentionally started the fire to recover insurance money and better his living situation. Before trial, Bill disputed the statements he made after hours of interrogation and without sleep or food, and argued that he told the officers what they wanted to hear.
IIP began working on Bill’s case in 2012. At a December 2016 post-conviction hearing, Bill’s legal team, including Lauren Kaeseberg, Legal Director of IIP’s Chicago office, presented evidence of his innocence that showed the original arson findings are unreliable when analyzed under modern arson science and fire investigation techniques. All experts testified it is impossible to start a fire with vodka and a lit cigarette. In fact, the State’s own witness, an ATF senior special agent, conceded that Amor was not in the apartment when the fire started.
In April 2017, based on the evidence presented in the December hearing, a DuPage County judge vacated Bill’s conviction and ordered a new trial. In Judge Liam Brennan’s ruling, he concluded:
“…there can be no question that the lynchpin of the State’s case at trial was the defendant’s confession, which the State and Defense experts today agree is scientifically impossible. Whatever the reasons for the Defendant’s scientifically impossible confession, the new evidence places the evidence presented at trial in a different light and undercuts this Court’s confidence in the factual correctness of the guilty verdict.”
Despite the court’s findings and overwhelming evidence of Bill’s actual innocence, the DuPage County State’s Attorney plans to retry the case. A January 2018 trial date has been set. An incredible legal team continues to represent Bill at his retrial along with IIP’s Lauren Kaeseberg. Tara Thompson of the Exoneration Project in Chicago leads the trial team, which includes Kevin Caraher (recipient of IIP’s 2017 “Defender of the Innocent” award) from the law firm Cozen O’Connor and Erica Nichols Cook, former IIP staff attorney who first opened Bill’s case.
False confessions and faulty forensic science are two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in this country. Of the 2,120 exonerations nationwide since 1989, false confessions played a role in in 253 (12%) and faulty forensic science played a role in 509 (24%) according to the National Registry of Exonerations (as of November 2017).