Claude Garrett’s girlfriend died in a fire in 1992. Tennessee says it was murder by arson. Scientists say the state is wrong.
Almost 30 years after Claude Garrett was accused of setting a fire that killed his girlfriend, Lorie Lance, the district attorney’s office in Nashville, Tennessee, has concluded that there is no evidence the fire was arson — and that Garrett was wrongfully convicted of Lance’s murder. In a notice of intent filed in Davidson County Criminal Court on Monday, District Attorney Glenn Funk told a judge that “clear and convincing evidence” indicates that Garrett is likely innocent, signaling the DA’s intention to request that Garrett’s conviction be vacated and the charges against him dismissed.
The DA’s notice was filed alongside a report by Sunny Eaton, director of the office’s Conviction Review Unit, who spent the past year closely reexamining Garrett’s case. “While the CRU’s review of this case did not uncover affirmative evidence conclusively establishing Garrett’s innocence,” Eaton wrote in the report, “the CRU finds it wholly impossible to maintain confidence in Garrett’s conviction. Holistic review of the record, the District Attorney’s file, and new scientific evidence dismantles every single piece of evidence previously believed to inculpate Garrett.”
Garrett was twice convicted of setting the fire that killed 24-year-old Lance in the small home they shared in Old Hickory, Tennessee, just outside Nashville. The couple had returned from a local bar in the early morning hours of February 24, 1992, when Garrett said he awoke to find a fire in the living room. According to Garrett, he woke up Lance and ran with her toward the front door, only for Lance to turn and run toward the rear of the house. Firefighters later found her in a utility room, dead from smoke inhalation.
Although neighbors initially described Garrett as frantic, yelling for Lance from outside, investigators became suspicious upon arriving at the scene, where they smelled kerosene and found a large irregular-shaped burn pattern on the living room floor. The lead investigator, James Cooper — a special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives — seized on this so-called pour pattern as proof that an ignitable liquid had been used to start the fire. He also concluded that the utility room had been locked from the outside, trapping Lance. Garrett was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Garrett’s case is one of countless arson convictions across the U.S. based on evidence that has since been debunked. Many visual indicators once believed to signal arson were rooted in a misunderstanding of fire behavior. The “pour pattern” found at the home in Old Hickory was in fact the result of a phenomenon called flashover, which was not widely understood in 1992. In the decades following Lance’s death, new developments in fire science transformed the techniques used to determine whether a fire is arson. But even as investigators have discarded the myths they once relied upon in favor of the scientific method, prosecutors have been slow to revisit old arson cases, frequently fighting to keep convictions intact.
The Davidson County DA’s office is an important exception. “Interpreted in light of new scientific advances and guided by the professional analysis of ten experts who have reviewed the evidence in this case, there is no basis whatsoever to believe that an incendiary act by Garrett caused this fire any more than a hypothesis suggesting accidental cause,” Eaton wrote in the CRU report. If not for the office’s willingness to reexamine the work of its own former prosecutors, Garrett could easily have faced the prospect of dying in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Although a judge still has to accept the findings of the CRU — and hold a hearing before agreeing to vacate the conviction — Garrett, now 65, could soon be released. For fire investigator Stuart Bayne, who became Garrett’s most dedicated advocate after testifying at his second trial in 2003, the DA’s decision is both vindicating and long overdue. For 20 years, he has told anyone who would listen that Garrett is an innocent man. “Finally, other people are beginning to see it,” he said.
I first learned about Garrett’s case in the spring of 2013, from an advocate who visited him in prison. At a glance, the case contained striking parallels to the infamous story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was wrongfully executed in Texas after being convicted of killing his own children in a fire. The two fatal fires took place within months of one another, just before the publication of “NFPA 921,” a manual that would eventually revolutionize the field of fire investigation.
Garrett’s conviction was also a case study in the legal system’s lack of recourse for people incarcerated based on faulty forensics — particularly in the absence of tangible exonerating evidence such as DNA. As with most old arson convictions, there was no evidence left to test, only photographs and reports by investigators whose examination of the scene had been perfunctory at best. Nevertheless, by the time I first met Garrett at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, his case had already been reviewed by two leading fire scientists, who made clear that the evidence used to convict him was junk science.
One, the late Gerald Hurst, was best known for his attempts to clear Willingham before his 2004 execution. In a 2014 interview, Hurst told me that the fire investigation in Garrett’s case had been “a typical piece of crap” — based on a rush to judgment by an expert who believed that he could tell whether a fire was arson based on his observations alone. Renowned fire scientist John Lentini also reviewed the case as part of Garrett’s appellate proceedings and reached the same conclusion. Garrett tried to argue that his trial lawyers had been deficient for failing to effectively challenge the state’s arson evidence. But his appeal was denied.
After I published my initial investigation in early 2015, additional experts came forward to review the case, including fire engineer Craig Beyler, who produced a report on behalf of an international group of fire scientists that called itself the Tetrahedron Committee. Along with an updated report authored by Lentini, Garrett presented the Tetrahedron findings to his trial court in 2017, arguing that the experts’ conclusions were based on newly discovered evidence and established his innocence. But the Tennessee attorney general’s office objected, saying that the motion reflected no new evidence but merely “newly written opinions.” The court dismissed Garrett’s motion without a hearing.
With the legal avenues for challenging his conviction increasingly narrowed, Garrett went before the Tennessee Board of Parole in 2018, where he insisted on his innocence — a somewhat risky strategy given the imperative that applicants show remorse for their crimes. Despite a virtually spotless record behind bars and a vote in his favor by the board chair, Garrett’s bid was denied.
But that same year, a series of follow-up stories by The Intercept caught the attention of the Davidson County DA’s Office, which had recently launched the Conviction Review Unit. Although the CRU’s guidelines dictated that it would not consider applications “while any appeal, petition, or writ is pending in court” — which would have disqualified Garrett, who was pursuing a federal appeal — the unit also maintained the discretion “to review the case if it is in the interest of justice.” If there is compelling evidence of innocence, Assistant Attorney General Robert Jones told me in February 2019, “we’re not gonna sit here for years and wait for the case to go through the courts.”
That same month, the Tennessee Innocence Project launched in Nashville. Garrett would become one of its first clients. In August 2019, the organization’s executive director, Jessica Van Dyke, and federal public defender Michael Holley filed an application to the CRU on Garrett’s behalf. But it was not until Sunny Eaton took over in September 2020 that things started moving. A former defense attorney who had seen clients she believed to be innocent go to prison, Eaton told the Nashville Scene that she intended to bring a “sense of urgency” to the work. “When I get a case to investigate, we either quickly need to restore confidence in that conviction,” she said, “or we need to remedy it.”
In the 14 months since Eaton took over, the CRU has accomplished more than it did during its first several years. Garrett’s case is the second conviction the office has sought to overturn in November alone. Less than two weeks ago, the DA’s office asked a judge to vacate the tragic wrongful conviction of a Nashville couple, Joyce Watkins and Charlie Dunn, who were accused of raping and murdering a 4-year-old child in 1987. Watkins was granted parole in 2015, after 27 years in prison. Dunn died in prison that same year.
The convictions of Watkins and Dunn turned on the faulty forensic testimony of an expert who also played a key role in Garrett’s case: Dr. Gretel Harlan, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Lance in 1992. Although Harlan did not find any evidence of injuries to support the theory that Garrett had forcibly locked Lance in the utility room before setting the fire, she did visit the fire scene alongside investigators, where she took photos of the latch on the door. The visit clearly shaped her analysis; at Garrett’s first trial, Harlan testified that burns found on various parts of Lance’s body could have been sustained inside the utility room at the back of the house, even though flames never reached the area. “Everyone is familiar with the process of sunburning,” Harlan said. “All the skin requires to sustain the burn is too long exposure in too high a heat.”
“Detectives relied so heavily on the fire investigation that they failed to perform basic investigative functions.”
Experts have repeatedly argued that this is ludicrous. But when I reached Harlan in 2014, she insisted that Lance “must have” gotten her burns inside the room since the door had been locked. The CRU report disagrees. It points to physical evidence that supports Garrett’s account that he and Lance ran past the living room toward the front door before Lance turned around. Garrett sustained burns on his face and left arm, which “were similar in location, depth, and intensity to those of Ms. Lance,” Eaton wrote. The CRU report echoes what Bayne has long argued: that the parallel burn patterns on Garrett and Lance show “that both bodies were in the same location, at the same point in time, facing the same intensity of heat exposure, from approximately the same distance to the heat source, for approximately the same duration.”
This exposure to intense heat would also help explain why Lance ran to the utility room. When I asked Hurst in 2014 why Lance would have run to the back of the house instead of following Claude out the front door, he explained that while she was almost certainly disoriented, people in a fire scenario will also do whatever they can to get away from smoke and flames. An enclosed room can provide protection from fire, he said, and for a time, it did. “If they had found her earlier, they might have saved her life,” he said.
Perhaps most important, the CRU report emphasizes that there was never any real evidence that the utility room was locked and Lance was trapped inside. Indeed, Garrett’s original 1993 conviction was overturned after he filed an open records request and received a police report that had been illegally withheld from his defense attorney. In the report, a Nashville police detective said he’d been told by the fire captain that the door had been found unlocked.
Eaton writes that “despite the enormous significance that was attached to the latch at trial,” investigators did not bother preserving or studying it. “Detectives relied so heavily on the fire investigation that they failed to perform basic investigative functions as they would have done in any other suspected homicide,” she wrote. Neither the door nor the latch was collected or analyzed even though, “according to the state’s theory, these were the murder weapons in this case.”
Experts have long pointed to the latch as critical. So has Garrett, who repeatedly constructed models of the latch while in prison. Because the locking mechanism relied on a latch that slid back and forth, its condition after the fire could have provided important clues. One photo from the scene, which Lentini included in his updated 2016 report, showed heavy smoke deposits on the edge of the door to the utility room — the part that would presumably have been shielded by the door frame had it been closed during the fire. These smoke deposits showed that the door “was not even closed” during the fire, let alone locked, Lentini wrote.
Smoke deposits showed that the door “was not even closed” during the fire, let alone locked.
The CRU report reinforces this conclusion. Among other experts, it cites the work of a fire scientist named Candace Ashby, who in 2019 conducted an experiment that recreated the conditions of the fire. “Based on the carbonization differences,” the report states, Ashby concluded that “the latch was in the unlocked position during the fire.”
Many of the CRU report’s 50 pages focus on the work of Cooper, the ATF special agent. Experts consulted by the CRU found his “investigation to be faulty, his methods outdated, and his conclusions unsubstantiated,” Eaton wrote. In addition to lacking any scientific basis, the CRU notes, “his testimony in the second trial was emotionally charged, filled with inflammatory overstatements, mischaracterizations of the evidence, and assumptions regarding Garrett’s intent.”
Cooper is retired and living in Alabama. Although he has repeatedly refused to consider the many expert reports debunking his work, he has repudiated at least some of what he said at Garrett’s original trial. When I visited him in 2018, I asked him about his statement that burns on Garrett’s face had likely been sustained when he leaned down to light kerosene in the living room. Transcripts from the trial show that Cooper had compared it to lighting a gas grill: “Sometimes it won’t ignite and you stick your head down there to see and you’ve got this open flame that comes back with a POOF!” he said. Experts later deemed this to be impossible — and to my surprise, Cooper agreed. “I would be crazy to say that,” he said.
The CRU report was filed less than a week after Garrett turned 65. In a phone call on his birthday, Garrett said his neighbors were giving him Pepsis and candy bars — “Things I don’t need,” he chuckled. In the years I have known Garrett, he has strived to take care of his health, which is not easy behind bars. Last year, as the coronavirus swept through Riverbend prison, he got sick with Covid, but his symptoms remained mild.
For a long time, Garrett was understandably skeptical of the CRU. Why would the same office that twice sent him to prison exonerate him? But he has also been heartened by the increased public scrutiny of the original prosecutor in his case, former Davidson County Assistant Attorney General John Zimmerman, who concealed the exculpatory police report and has since faced multiple accusations of prosecutorial misconduct. In 2019, a Nashville judge vacated the death sentence of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman on the grounds that Zimmerman had discriminated against Black jurors. Despite repeated attempts by the Tennessee attorney general to block a plea deal in the case, Abdur’Rahman was finally removed from death row earlier this month.
In a phone call shortly after the CRU report was filed in court, Garrett expressed gratitude to those who have been willing to examine his case. “I’m thankful, I’m excited,” he said. But he’ll remain guarded “until the door opens.”
Garrett still faces a series of legal hurdles before he can be released.
Garrett’s caution is warranted: He still faces a series of legal hurdles before he can be released. The judge presiding over his case must be persuaded that the findings within the CRU report qualify as newly discovered evidence of innocence under Tennessee law, a claim the same court has previously rejected. Both the CRU report and a concurrent filing by Holley, Garrett’s federal public defender, and Van Dyke, of the Tennessee Innocence Project, argue extensively that the evidence provided by experts in Garrett’s case should count. Garrett’s attorneys cite five scientific developments since Garrett’s 2003 trial — including two studies from 2019, after Garrett’s last unsuccessful motion for relief — that were clearly unavailable to him at the time. “No court has reviewed these studies and developments. … Nor has any hearing been held where Mr. Garrett could present this new evidence.”
Although he has yet to read the CRU report for himself, Garrett has been aware of its general conclusions for some time. News of the DA’s decision in his case first leaked on November 2, after the CRU discussed its findings with Lance’s surviving relatives. In a statement to Nashville’s Channel 5 News, Lance’s family wrote that they were saddened by the decision and “wholeheartedly believe” in Garrett’s guilt. The family has long insisted that Garrett was an abuser who killed Lance after finding out that she planned to leave him.
Although it deeply bothers Garrett that Lance’s family remains convinced he is a murderer, he speaks about them with compassion. “They’ve been victims just as much as I have,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, Channel 5 ran a second news segment, this time outlining the CRU’s findings. Garrett watched it on TV, as did other men in his unit. “It kind of makes it more real,” he said in a phone call Tuesday morning. Later, Garrett planned to call his daughter, who is waiting to introduce him to his 4-year-old grandson. “She’s excited. And frustrated that it is taking so long. But you know, she’s thankful as well,” Garrett said. “Probably a bit like me. Cautious.”
Garrett’s daughter, Deana, now in her 30s, has shared links to stories on Facebook about her dad’s case. Although she always believed in his innocence, she has only recently become outspoken about his wrongful conviction. After news of the CRU report first leaked, she was dismayed to see some negative reactions — a reminder that some people would never believe her father was innocent. But she resolved not to pay attention. “I’ve ignored it for this long,” she said. “I guess a little while longer couldn’t hurt.”
Claude Garrett’s girlfriend died in a fire in 1992. Tennessee says it was murder by arson. Scientists say the state is wrong.