Claude Garrett’s girlfriend died in a fire in 1992. Tennessee says it was murder by arson. Scientists say the state is wrong.
By the time the last witness took the stand at Nashville’s downtown criminal court to testify in the case of Claude Garrett, it was hard to know what more could be said. The hearing was the final step in a long fight to correct a miscarriage of justice: a nearly 30-year-old murder conviction that the district attorney himself had disavowed.
Garrett was convicted of setting a 1992 fire that killed his 24-year-old girlfriend Lorie Lance. Prosecutors said Garrett locked Lance in a utility room and poured kerosene throughout the house. For decades he’d proclaimed his innocence — and last November, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office released a long-awaited report by its Conviction Review Unit, which had reinvestigated the case. It concluded that the state’s original arson theory was bogus. There was not a single reliable piece of evidence to show that Garrett had set the fire.
Garrett and his supporters had hoped he might be home for Christmas. But first a judge had to formally sign off on a motion to vacate his conviction. After months of delay — first a snowstorm, then a new presiding judge — lawyers for Garrett finally had a chance to present the evidence that his jurors had never heard. The DA’s office, meanwhile, had a chance to explain why the CRU findings supported Garrett’s bid for freedom. It was now up to fire scientist Greg Gorbett, the state’s sole witness, to drive home for Judge Monte Watkins why he should rule in Garrett’s favor.
Gorbett, 41, was far younger than the many of the veteran fire experts who previously examined the case. He came of age at a time when investigators were being forced to discard long-held myths used to identify arson and replace them with science. One such myth had been the lynchpin to Garrett’s conviction: a large irregular burn mark on the floor of the house, which investigators labeled a “pour pattern” — proof that an ignitable liquid had been used to set the fire. Today, such evidence is widely regarded as junk science. Burn patterns like these can actually be produced through a phenomenon called flashover, or the moment a fire in a room becomes a room on fire. For Gorbett’s generation of fire experts, cases like Garrett’s were a relic of another age. “They didn’t follow the scientific method — or even any real science we had in 1992,” Gorbett said.
Nashville prosecutor Sunny Eaton, the head of the CRU, walked Gorbett through the work of the state’s star witness at trial, Special Agent James Cooper of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Cooper claimed to be able to tell that a fire was arson through his visual observations alone — a hallmark of wrongful arson convictions. But he had also taken samples from various areas at the scene where he believed he might find kerosene. “What does he then do with those samples?” Eaton asked.
Gorbett’s face broke into a slightly pained smile. “He puts them together in a can,” he replied.
“In the same can?” Eaton asked. Yes, Gorbett said.
One didn’t have to be a fire scientist to see the problem. With the samples mixed together, there was no way to know where an ignitable liquid may have been present — a crucial factor in determining whether the fire was arson. “If there was an ignitable liquid, then he just cross-contaminated everything,” Gorbett explained.
This was hardly the most shocking revelation to date about the evidence that sent Garrett to prison. Experts have pointed to myriad blunders over the years: the fire marshal who smelled kerosene and immediately assumed it was arson; the failure by Cooper to interview firefighters or reconstruct the scene; and perhaps most stunning, the total lack of examination — or even decent photographs — of the door or latch that supposedly trapped Lance inside the utility room. This was the alleged “murder weapon,” Eaton told the judge. Yet police did nothing to preserve it.
If anything, the testimony about the contaminated samples added a layer of absurdity to a conviction that has been so thoroughly discredited, many in the courtroom wondered why Watkins wouldn’t just free Garrett on the spot. Instead, after closing statements, the judge said he would have a decision as soon as possible.
Garrett’s daughter Deana, who traveled hundreds of miles for the hearing, had hoped to walk out of court with her father that day. As she listened to the testimony about the botched fire investigation, she found herself getting angry. For all the high-level science brought to bear in debunking the case against Garrett, his conviction had largely come down to a basic mix of ineptitude and misconduct: a shoddy investigation, unqualified experts, and prosecutors who concealed key evidence from the defense. After Garrett’s original conviction was thrown out in 2001 following the discovery of a police report containing critical exculpatory information, the DA’s office simply retried him, winning a second conviction in 2003.
Deana planned to stay in Nashville, hoping every day for a ruling. But no one seemed to know when a decision would come down. Once again, the only thing to do was wait.
I first met Claude Garrett in 2013. By then, his case had already been reviewed by two leading fire scientists who made clear that the evidence used to convict him was junk science. Another expert, East Tennessee fire investigator Stuart Bayne, who testified at Garrett’s retrial, had become his most passionate advocate, meeting with me multiple times to explain why the state’s theory of the fire was impossible.
Although additional experts came forward soon after The Intercept’s 2015 investigation into the case, there was no clear path to exoneration. When Garrett presented a new set of reports to his trial court in 2017, the Tennessee attorney general’s office objected, saying they reflected no new evidence but merely “newly written opinions.” The court dismissed Garrett’s motion without a hearing.
In 2018, Garrett went before the Tennessee Board of Parole, where he insisted on his innocence. Although the board chair voted in his favor, Garrett was ultimately denied parole. Later that year, however, The Intercept’s coverage caught the attention of the Davidson County DA’s office, which had recently launched the Conviction Review Unit. Then the Tennessee Innocence Project launched in Nashville, and Garrett became one of its first clients. In August 2019, Innocence Project lawyers and the state federal public defender’s office filed an application to the CRU on Garrett’s behalf. But it was not until Sunny Eaton took over in September 2020 that the reinvestigation made real progress.
The hearing took place on a rainy day in early April. The first person to address the court was Lance’s sister, Haley Smith. Although she was only a little girl when her sister died, she had become the family’s main spokesperson over the years. She had opposed Garrett’s release on parole, and she opposed his release now. But she also seemed resigned to the outcome of the DA’s investigation, which she described as biased in Garrett’s favor. Her voice shook as she held up a photograph of her sister for the judge, to “let you remember who the true victim in the case was.”
In her opening statement, Eaton described the CRU’s exhaustive review of the case. She emphasized that the DA’s office had not relied on Garrett’s expert witnesses but solicited independent reviews from their own experts. “The primary question before the state was always: What happened to Lorie Lance?” she said. But the DA’s duties to the victim also required that other questions be answered. “Does new scientific evidence exist that was unheard by a jury that would lead us as an office to lose confidence in Mr. Garrett’s conviction?” Next, if the DA’s office had known in 1993 or 2003 what it knows today, would it have indicted Garrett for murder? And finally, would a reasonable jury today convict Garrett today?
We may never know what happened to Lorie Lance, Eaton said, in part because the investigation into the fire was so flawed. But the CRU had reached a firm conclusion on the rest of the questions. New evidence “dismantles all evidence of Mr. Garrett’s guilt in this case.”
The first defense witness was famed fire scientist John Lentini, who first testified on Garrett’s behalf in 2010. To explain just how profoundly the field had evolved, Lentini gave a presentation on the history of fire investigation, starting with a video showing how a smoldering cigarette in a couch could quickly lead to a conflagration. The point was to demonstrate flashover, a critical factor in determining a fire’s origin and cause, Lentini explained. But at the time of the fire in Garrett’s case, investigators were not trained to understand the phenomenon.
“Before 1992, the fire investigation was riddled with myths and misconceptions,” Lentini explained. Although a landmark guidebook by the National Fire Protection Association was published the same year as the fire, many of the myths persisted through Garrett’s 2003 trial.
But Lentini also made clear that the investigation into the fire had been shockingly inadequate even for the loose standards in place at the time. He emphasized the significance of the utility room door. Confirming that Lance was locked inside the room should have been the most critical question from the start — the difference between a murder and an accident. Had investigators preserved the door and latch, they could have studied the smoke deposits left behind. In fact, the few photographs taken of the door showed soot on the part of the latch that would have been protected had it been in a closed position. It also showed burns on the side of the door, which suggested it had been open during the fire.
Yet at the retrial, Cooper, the ATF special agent, dismissed such evidence. “I don’t care about the carbon on that latch,” he said. To Lentini, this was shocking testimony. “There’s physical evidence fire investigators are supposed to be looking at,” he said. “He never looked at it.”
The next witness was Candace Ashby, a battalion commander at the Indianapolis Fire Department who runs a private fire investigation company. Ashby was hired to do an experiment in 2019 by a TV producer working on an episode about Garrett’s case. To investigate what smoke deposits might have shown if the evidence had been preserved in 1992, she got permission to do a live fire test at an empty warehouse outside Nashville. Two slide locks were placed onto wooden boards: one in an unlocked position and the other in a locked position. The boards were then exposed to intense heat and flames. Afterward, Ashby reported that the slide lock in the unlocked position “showed carbon build up had collected on the exposed bolt,” whereas the other bolt had no such build up, since it had been protected by the exterior of the lock.
The experiment supported what Lentini has long argued: that the door to the utility room was unlocked during the fire. But it also supported Ashby’s own experience as a firefighter. As she explained on the stand, it was very unlikely that a firefighter with limited vision, wearing thick gloves and heavy gear, could have manipulated such a small latch to get into the room where Lance was found. If anything, they would have kicked down the door. For Ashby, it was inconceivable that someone would have found Lance trapped inside the room and not immediately announced that the door was locked. “The first thing they would have done is tell everybody on that scene who would listen,” she said. “Because that’s really significant. And that was not done in this case.”
In a face mask and blue jeans, Garrett sat in handcuffs throughout the hearing. Friends and advocates had come to support him, some of whom he had not seen in years. But he restrained himself from waving hello. He considered the hearing a somber occasion. Lance had still lost her life. “And she’s been looked at as a murder victim,” he said in a phone call from prison afterward. “Her family’s been told that for 30 years.”
Garrett found himself getting emotional during the video played by Lentini, which brought back the trauma of the fire. “Thinking back about, you know, everything that was going on at that moment,” he said, “what Lorie was going through.” The hearing was also bittersweet for another reason: His mother had always hoped to see his freedom, but she died in 2020. Asked what he thought she would say now, Garrett responded, “I’m glad you guys finally caught up. I’ve always known that he wouldn’t do this — not that he didn’t, but that he wouldn’t.”
For Bayne, the fire investigator and advocate for Garrett, the hearing was a vindication of everything he had argued for decades. During one of their regularly scheduled phone calls, Bayne also picked up something different in Garrett, a sense that he was allowing himself to look toward the future. “The words he’s used over these years is ‘guardedly optimistic,’” Bayne said. He encouraged Garrett to stay that way until the decision came down. But Garrett sounded ready to leave prison behind. “He’s about to close a chapter — and really hoping that that page actually gets turned.”
Claude Garrett’s girlfriend died in a fire in 1992. Tennessee says it was murder by arson. Scientists say the state is wrong.