Claude Garrett’s girlfriend died in a fire in 1992. Tennessee says it was murder by arson. Scientists say the state is wrong.
Stuart Bayne stepped inside the house at 114 Broadway Street and let out a deep sigh. He stood still for a moment, then walked slowly toward the back of the house. For a minute he said nothing, his footsteps echoing throughout the empty rooms. The walls were painted bright colors — the living room was deep burgundy, the kitchen mustard yellow — but the space felt grim and cold. Bayne entered the laundry room, a small, dirty space with white walls. He placed his hand on his heart and grimaced. This was the room where Lorie Lee Lance had died in a fire almost 28 years earlier.
Bayne wore glasses, dark coveralls, and brown work boots. It was a frigid Tuesday in December, the week before Christmas. He’d driven to the house in Old Hickory, Tennessee, just north of Nashville, in a Jeep 4×4 advertising his business: The Fire PI: Confidential Origin and Cause Investigations. The vehicle was filled with supplies — hard hats, flashlights, and a portable generator. On the passenger’s seat was the 2017 edition of the National Fire Protection Association’s seminal handbook, “NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigators.”
The first edition of “NFPA 921” was published in 1992, just weeks before the fire at 114 Broadway. In the years to come, it would revolutionize Bayne’s profession. Until that point, fire investigators had been taught to rely on instinct and their interpretation of visual evidence at the scene to determine a fire’s origin and cause. But “NFPA 921” replaced this approach with the scientific method: gathering evidence to test a hypothesis to figure out how a fire began. Critically, the text also dispelled long-standing myths about fire behavior, debunking the visual clues that experts once associated with arson. Irregular burn marks known as “pour patterns,” for example, long seen as evidence of a liquid accelerant, were actually produced by a phenomenon called flashover — the moment a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.
But these revelations came too late for the fire that killed Lance. When investigators arrived at the house on February 24, 1992, they seized on a large “pour pattern” on the living room floor, along with a container of kerosene found in the kitchen. Lance’s boyfriend, 35-year-old Claude Garrett, who survived the fire, insisted that he did not know how it started, explaining that the couple used kerosene to heat their home during the winter. But he soon fell under suspicion. Prosecutors said he locked Lance in the laundry room at the back of the house, poured kerosene onto the living room floor, and left her to die.
Photos: Liliana Segura/The Intercept
There should have been doubts about this theory from the start. After being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in 1993, Garrett won a new trial after uncovering evidence withheld by the state, which indicated that the door to the back room had not been locked at all. But in 2003, a new jury sent Garrett back to prison, much to the distress of Bayne, who was hired as an expert witness for the retrial. He was convinced the case was a miscarriage of justice — a conviction based on junk science that had long since been debunked. For nearly 20 years Bayne has been trying to explain this to anyone who will listen. Nevertheless, as we stood inside the house that day, Garrett was facing yet another Christmas behind bars.
As we stood inside the house that day, Garrett was facing yet another Christmas behind bars.
I first met Bayne for an investigation into Garrett’s case published in 2015. After our initial meeting, he tried to visit the house but was turned away by a resident. He’d been inside only once before — in 2002, thanks to a renter who gave him brief access — and was desperate to return. Although Bayne had pored over the evidence in the case countless times, he wrote to me, “a fire investigator needs to stand in the very spot (a.k.a., the room of origin) and revisit the event in his mind’s eye.”
The one-story cinderblock home remained standing after the fire, its basic structure intact. Now the owner was preparing to sell it; like many of the old houses in Nashville’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, it would likely be torn down. Bayne had one last chance to look at the house up close, to consider what, if anything, it could tell him about the fire.
Although he cannot prove it for sure, Bayne’s theory has always been that a burning cigarette started the fire. Garrett and Lance were both smokers; they had gone out drinking the night before, then returned and watched TV in the living room. A loveseat had been fully consumed in the blaze, which Bayne believed was the point of origin. Today, a qualified investigator would clear out the debris at the scene and then reconstruct the room as accurately as possible, returning surviving furnishings to their original locations in order to study how the fire progressed. But this didn’t happen in 1992: Investigators discarded the furniture onto the front lawn.
Bayne stepped into the living room and rattled off its former contents. “Loveseat. Couch. Fish tank. Entertainment center.” Then he turned right, into the bedroom. He recounted Garrett’s account of the fire, a scenario he had been replaying in his mind for years. How Garrett awoke in the early morning hours, smelled smoke, saw a glow in the living room. How he woke up Lance, ran with her toward the front door. Bayne reached for my hand as he turned right from the bedroom and walked me toward the front door. He opened it. But, “she turns, heads for the back. He goes out the front only to realize that she’s not with him.”
It all happened so fast, Bayne said. With the front door open, oxygen fed the fire, devouring the living room’s cluttered contents, consuming the wood paneling on the walls. It would have taken almost no time at all for the room to reach flashover. By the time Lance got to the back room, “this house was charged with smoke. And in a few breaths, she’s collapsed.”
Inside the laundry room, Bayne shoved the back door open, a gust of cold air entering from the backyard. That door was not there in 1992. There was a boarded up window, instead. Garrett has explained that he’d accidentally broken the window months before the fire, and the landlord would not fix it. But prosecutors said Garrett had covered the window on purpose — all part of the plan to kill Lance.
Bayne did not believe this. He believed in Garrett’s innocence. He paused and sighed again. “If only there was a door.”
This week marked the 28th year since the fire in Old Hickory. For Garrett, now 63, the anniversary comes at a particularly painful time. His stepfather died suddenly last year, and in early February, his mother was admitted to the hospital for heart surgery, only to be told that she would likely only survive another six months.
In the meantime, exonerations in old arson crimes continue. Last year, Robert Yell was exonerated in Kentucky after 15 years behind bars for a fire that killed his two children. Like Garrett, Yell was initially described as responding hysterically to the fire — and like Garrett, his clothes tested negative for any liquid accelerants. Although Yell’s arson prosecution took place well after Garrett’s initial conviction, it rested on the same kind of junk science once used to charge people for arson. Meanwhile, not a single U.S. state apart from Texas has undertaken a systematic review of old arson cases.
Nevertheless, there are some new reasons for optimism for Garrett. A TV special reexamining the Old Hickory fire is set to air soon on the network Investigation Discovery, which promises to bring scrutiny to the case. More importantly, an application to the Davidson County District Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit, filed by Garrett’s attorneys last summer, is pending in Nashville. Although the application guidelines dictate that the CRU will only examine cases in which appeals have been exhausted — something that has not yet happened in Garrett’s case — the office seems open to revisiting the case.
There has also been a series of important legal victories. In 2016, Garrett challenged his conviction in state court based in part on new reports by leading fire experts who concluded that there was no reliable evidence of arson in his case. One affidavit, by renowned fire scientist John Lentini, further debunked the so-called pour patterns as proof that kerosene had been used to start the fire. A 2013 study revealed that ignitable liquids burn up quickly in fires, Lentini wrote, “and do not cause the kind of charring found on the floor of the Garrett residence.” The state court rejected Garrett’s challenge, but last fall, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to Tennessee — a chance to litigate claims that have not received a hearing in court.
Finally, in December 2019, a federal district court authorized evidence-gathering on a nagging question: whether lead investigator James F. Cooper, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and the state’s star witness against Garrett, misrepresented his credentials on the stand. At the 1993 and 2003 trials, Cooper testified that he was certified with the International Association of Arson Investigators. But in a March 2019 letter to Garrett’s new appellate attorney, the organization showed certification only from 2007 to 2012. If Cooper misled the court about his qualifications, it could be grounds for a new trial.
It may well be that Cooper was, in fact, certified at the time of the trials — and that the issue lies with the IAAI’s record-keeping. But even if he did not commit perjury on this point, it would not make Cooper’s testimony any less flawed. When it comes to his analysis of the fire, the central question is not whether his official credentials were valid but whether his conclusions were scientifically sound. Among every reputable expert who has looked at the fire, the answer to the latter is a resounding no.
The problem of expert witnesses who peddle junk science is hardly unique to fire cases. It cuts across virtually all areas of forensic analysis, from bullets to bite marks. Among such disciplines, fire investigation is in many ways a success story — a field that has spent the past decades getting on firmer scientific footing. Yet, for those people imprisoned for old arson crimes based on flawed methodology, there is no clear path to exoneration.
By the time of Garrett’s retrial, there should have been a way to effectively challenge flawed forensic evidence before Cooper ever took the stand. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court case — Daubert v. Merrell Dow Chemicals — had created new parameters for expert testimony in federal trials, which Tennessee adopted along with other states. But Garrett’s case shows how lawyers and judges were ill-equipped to apply it.
For people imprisoned for old arson crimes based on flawed methodology, there is no clear path to exoneration.
In a transcript from the 2003 retrial, Garrett’s trial attorney Dwight Scott asks Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Seth Norman for permission to question Cooper “both on his qualifications and his ability to render a scientific opinion that there was a pour pattern in this house.” In such a pretrial proceeding, known as a Daubert hearing, the judge is supposed to act as a “gatekeeper” to decide whether evidence is admissible at trial. But Norman was immediately skeptical — and seemingly unaware of what Daubert allowed. “You’re just wanting a preview of what the man’s gonna say,” he said, grudgingly allowing Scott to briefly question Cooper.
Scott asked Cooper to explain the scientific method. “Right now I don’t want to answer that,” Cooper replied, adding that he would have to get into too much research. “Well, would you agree that it’s simply just formulating, gathering data and then hypothesis?” Scott asked. Cooper deflected. His process was to take what he saw at the scene and consider it alongside witness interviews and other circumstantial evidence. “A lot of experts try to reduplicate the fire,” he added. But he preferred to look at the whole picture. In this case, “the most important thing that I needed to know,” he said, came down to the door to the room where Lance was found.
“You needed to know where the victim was in the storage room in order to make a determination about where the origin of the fire was?” Scott asked. “It’s part of the puzzle, Mr. Scott,” Cooper replied.
When I met Cooper outside his home in 2018, he reiterated the importance of the lock. But he could not answer why, if it was so central to the case, he had not bothered to preserve or study it more closely. As the late fire scientist Gerald Hurst told me in 2014, “Logically, you would have taken it off the door, or taken the whole door. And you would have had the laboratory look at it. And they didn’t do any of that.” In his 2016 affidavit, Lentini revealed how consequential this failure was.
“Agent Cooper was shockingly uninterested in the fact that the fire left carbon deposits on the sliding bolt showing that the bolt was slid to the right at the time of the fire,” he wrote. According to his analysis of the evidence, not only was the door unlocked, “it was not even closed.”
As I left the house at 114 Broadway in December, Bayne was still working inside. He had torn out much of the carpet, revealing what looked like old burn marks at the entrance of the bedroom floor. But inside the living room, the floors had been replaced, destroying the visual evidence that Cooper had called “pour patterns” almost 28 years before.
Bayne also took measurements of the walls, windows, and doorways. An engineer has agreed to use the data to create a computer model — a common way to recreate and study a fire scenario — and he was hoping to convince another expert to undertake a separate simulation. A fire investigator who “is passionate about getting it right does not really ever stop evaluating a fire scene,” Bayne later wrote in an email.
Indeed, despite Cooper’s dismissive attitude toward fire recreations, test fires are a critical way to understand fire scenarios. It is through such experiments — live burns carried out by federal agencies and private labs — that some of the most important breakthroughs have been made. People like Garrett don’t generally have the resources for such tests, although that has not kept Bayne from trying. Among the endless appeals for help he has written was a 2017 letter to the United States Fire Administration. Given the role of a federal agency in sending Garrett to prison for life, why shouldn’t a federal agency help reexamine the case?
The U.S. Fire Administration declined to get involved. But Bayne has not given up on the idea, especially as long as the house remains intact. He is planning to make a similar appeal to the ATF itself. As he wrote in his previous letter, the home could be purchased and restored as closely as possible to its 1992 furnishings. “Then, conduct two sets of burn tests on two hypotheses (one intentional, one unintentional).” One would test the state’s theory and the other his own.
“Imagine testing these two ideas in the very house where the 1992 event occurred,” Bayne wrote. “What an exciting and revealing experiment it could be!”
Claude Garrett’s girlfriend died in a fire in 1992. Tennessee says it was murder by arson. Scientists say the state is wrong.