The candidates’ meeting with the Cleveland Plain Dealer on February 19 was just winding down when a reporter asked veteran prosecutor Richard Bell, running in the Democratic primary for a seat on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, about a case he tried almost 20 years ago. Angela Garcia, put on trial three times for a fire that killed her two children, was convicted and given two life sentences in 2001. Bell was the lead prosecutor at the third trial and the case was a big win, highlighted for years on the website of the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. But Garcia and her family had always insisted on her innocence. Although her appeals culminated in a guilty plea arranged by Bell in 2016, there were good reasons to believe she had been telling the truth all along.
Garcia was accused of a double arson murder after escaping a fire on Cleveland’s east side in November 1999. The blaze killed Garcia’s daughters, 2-year-old Nyeemah and 3-year-old Nijah. Garcia told investigators that she was in a bathroom upstairs while scented candles burned downstairs. The girls were in a spare bedroom. Moments later, she was coughing, the lights had gone out, and the hallway was filled with smoke. Garcia tried unsuccessfully to gather the children in her bedroom, “then broke the glass from the window and exited out into the porch roof,” one investigator would write in his report. “She slid out of the roof and fell to the ground,” then ran next door for help. But rescue workers were unable to reach the children in time.
Investigators first believed the fire had been a tragic accident. An accelerant-detecting dog failed to alert to any signs of an ignitable liquid. The most likely cause, they decided, was a large candle in the dining room. But they later changed their minds based on circumstantial evidence and Garcia’s demeanor after the fire, which struck them as unemotional. Members of the community were appalled that she survived the fire while her children perished, sparking suspicions about insurance policies Garcia had purchased several months before. The suspicions deepened after investigators discovered that Garcia had overvalued belongings lost in the blaze. Evidence of insurance fraud became the basis for a much more sinister theory: that Garcia, a single mother living in a poor neighborhood, had murdered her little girls in exchange for money and freedom.
Garcia’s case was the subject of a lengthy investigation published by The Intercept in March 2017. It described how Cleveland prosecutors built a murder case against Garcia despite a total lack of physical evidence and used dubious trial tactics, including the unreliable testimony of a jailhouse snitch. Most significantly, as in countless arson cases in decades past, all three trials were rooted in junk science. State experts pointed to unusual burn patterns as proof that a liquid accelerant had been used to set the fire. But such indicators had long since been debunked as scientifically unsupportable. Today’s fire experts warn against drawing conclusions based on burn patterns without further testing. No testing took place in Garcia’s case. The house was demolished soon after the fire.
After two hung juries, Bell took over in 2001, completely transforming the case. Having previously claimed that the fire began in the dining room, the state now pointed to a second point of origin based on the same kind of junk science used at the first trials: photographs showing a suspicious burn pattern on the staircase. Calling a slew of new witnesses and relying on racist stereotypes, Bell cast Garcia as a bad mother whose financial behavior was so out of control it was akin to a drug addiction — she “needed another score,” Bell said. His fellow prosecutor Aaron Phillips, who is black, was especially merciless during closing arguments, telling the jury, “She’s not a mother. She is not a human being. She is a predator.”
There was damning evidence that Bell was well aware of the fatal flaws with his case before he offered the deal.
But the question raised at the Plain Dealer offices last month was not about Bell’s trial tactics. Instead, Bell was asked to respond to The Intercept’s allegation that the 2016 plea deal — a sudden, unexpected offer by Bell on the morning of an evidentiary hearing that could have led to a new trial — appeared designed to conceal the possibility that Bell had convicted an innocent woman. There was damning evidence that he was well aware of the fatal flaws with his case before he offered the deal, which required Garcia to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a reduced sentence.
Although it would not be revealed for months after the plea, Bell had attended a fire seminar the previous fall that debunked the kind of junk science underpinning Garcia’s conviction. Yet rather than drop the arson charge or exonerate Garcia, he sought to keep the discredited theory of the fire intact. At the newspaper’s office, the questioner asked Bell if he could respond to the contention that “the state knew that its original theory didn’t hold up … but still pushed for a plea to save the conviction.”
What followed was a series of statements by Bell that were self-serving, misleading, and at times blatantly false. Audio of the meeting, available on the Plain Dealer’s website, captures Bell flagrantly distorting the circumstances that led to the plea deal, while defending a fire theory that has been thoroughly discredited. Bell described the fire evidence as “right for the time, and then also it was right currently,” when in fact the opposite is true. Bell’s own expert, hired in advance of the 2016 hearing, reported “significant deficiencies in the scene investigation by the Cleveland Fire Investigation Unit.”
Bell also invoked an unnamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives expert who “did not use any type of old arson evidence” on the stand, presumably meaning that the testimony was free of discredited fire analysis. It was not clear who Bell was referring to, since he called two ATF witnesses at trial. One was a forensic auditor whose testimony was later deemed improper by the 8th District Court of Appeals. The other was ATF Agent Lance Kimmell, who repeatedly stated that deep charring known as “alligatoring” at the scene of the fire was proof of an ignitable liquid — a textbook example of old, discredited arson evidence.
As a man who has been lauded as a champion for rape survivors — and the head of the unit that supervises the Internet Crimes Against Children’s Task Force — Bell has campaigned as a crusader for women and children. In the meeting with the editorial board, Bell emphasized his belief in transparency and the need to respect defendants and victims alike. Yet his handling of Garcia’s case raises serious questions about whether his actions meet his rhetoric — and whether he would be a fair arbiter of the cases that would come before him as judge.
Perhaps the most egregious claim Bell made to the Plain Dealer was that the 2016 plea deal was what Garcia had wanted all along. “Ms. Garcia wanted to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter” after the fire, he told the Plain Dealer’s editorial board, but that offer was “rejected by our office.” In reality, as I wrote in my 2017 story, Garcia had rejected a plea deal years earlier because she refused to say she killed her children. The transcript from the third trial shows clearly that Bell himself understood this. In an exchange with the presiding judge on April 11, 2001, Bell acknowledged that the plea offer had come from his office. “I know that before the second trial, Mr. Glickman, who was formerly counsel for the state, had entered — made a plea offer but at this point in time the state has no offer on the table,” the judge said. “Is that correct?” “That’s correct, your Honor,” Bell replied.
Yet not only did Bell tell the editorial board that the plea came from Garcia, he insinuated that she wanted to plead guilty because she had admitted her guilt to her defense attorneys. “They have the discussions with the client privately and they can’t tell you everything that they’re admitting to them,” he said. The plea deal stemmed from “whatever conversations they had privately about her unfortunately making a terrible decision as a 24-year-old to burn down her home [which] led to the death of her two children.”
In a statement, Garcia’s lawyer, Assistant State Public Defender Joanna Sanchez, described Bell’s implication as “both unfounded and reckless.” Contrary to his claims, “Angela never offered a plea to the prosecutor,” she wrote. “Angela rejected the prosecutor’s offer before trial.” Nor was the outcome in any way what Garcia had wanted all along, she said. “In 2016, after spending nearly 17 years incarcerated for a crime she did not commit, she accepted a plea offer made by Mr. Bell. And the offer made by the prosecutor conditioned the plea on Angela making certain statements in court. Had Angela not entered the plea and made those statements, she risked spending the rest of her life in a cage for a crime she did not commit.”
On this last point, at least, Bell was slightly more forthcoming. Asked if he believed people sometimes plead guilty despite being innocent, Bell emphasized the statements made by Garcia at the 2016 hearing. Through tears, she had answered a series of questions asked by the judge. Was she responsible for the death of her daughter Nyeemah? Yes, Garcia said. Was she responsible for the death of her daughter Nijah? Yes. Was she guilty of arson? Yes. These answers, Bell insisted, proved the outcome was just. “We wanted to make sure that it was a guilty plea that was righteous,” he said.“And that she would allocute to that.” If Garcia was unwilling to do so, he said, “then we wouldn’t have taken the plea.”
On March 6, the Plain Dealer endorsed Bell for Common Pleas judge. He is the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. For his progressive challenger Jennifer O’Donnell, Garcia’s case represents a problem that is all too common. “As a career public defender, I am running on a platform of criminal justice reform and transparency,” she said in an email. “What happened in the case of Angela Garcia is sadly not unique to her situation. Coercive pleas of this nature are happening all over the country; to such a degree that the Innocence Project has featured Angela’s case and others in their series ‘The Guilty Plea Problem.’ It must stop. Dangling the keys to freedom in front of Angela Garcia and others when they have no leverage or power to negotiate is an abuse of power. Judges need to do the right thing and not allow pleas of this nature to happen.”
“The question needs to be asked of the state in this case: Why did you do what you did?”
It is particularly ironic that the seat at the heart of the race previously belonged to Mike Donnelly, who is now on the bench of the state Supreme Court. Donnelly, an outspoken advocate for transparency in plea deals, was deeply disturbed by the outcome in Garcia’s case back in 2016. In a meeting the day after the hearing, he told me that prosecutors are not obligated to protect their convictions, they are obligated to do justice. “The question needs to be asked of the state in this case: Why did you do what you did? Why?”
I have never been able to ask Bell that question. Although he implied to the editorial board that The Intercept never reached out for comment back in 2017, in reality he simply ignored numerous emails and phone calls to his office. He continued to ignore messages left last week, as well as an emailed list of questions that his constituents deserve to have answered: Why did he claim Garcia wanted to plead guilty when the opposite was true? Why did he claim that an ATF expert did not use discredited arson evidence when Kimmell absolutely did? And why, more than 20 years after the fire, does he continue to call Garcia a murderer when there is no reliable evidence that she set the fire that killed her children?
When Cleveland voters cast their ballots on primary day, it seems unlikely that very many will be thinking of an arson conviction from 2001. Although Ohio has postponed its primary election until June in response to the novel coronavirus, turnout is likely to remain low. Still, if Bell wins the primary as expected, Garcia’s case and his statements to the editorial board may haunt him until November. After all, while he has been free to further build his career, Garcia has languished in prison. “Since Angela agreed to the prosecutor’s offer,” Sanchez says, “time has moved increasingly slower, as she counts the days until she is free and can be reunited with her family and friends.”
Update: March 17, 2020
This article has been updated to reflect the postponement of Ohio’s primary election.