In case you missed it, tonight, the case of Amanda Kelley was extensively profiled on ABC’s newsmagazine show 20/20. The hour-long report focused on the “science of arson” and, particularly, on mothers who were charged with murdering their children by allegedly setting their homes on fire, Amanda Kelley being a case in point.
Nine years after being charged with the first degree murder of her three children, 20/20 finds Amanda Kelley walking down Murray Street in Downtown Alexandria and up the steps of the Rapides Parish Court House. She is about to plead guilty to negligent homicide, a plea bargain that will allow her to return to her new home in West Virginia a free woman.
The report then follows Kelley to the scene of the fatal house fire, in the neighborhood of Sherwood Forest in Tioga, Louisiana. She claims it is the first time she has returned to the neighborhood since the tragic fire, and she emotionally recounts the details of returning to her burning home and being blanketed by walls of smoke as she attempted to walk inside.
For those of you who don’t know the story, nine years ago, Kelley was charged with murdering her three young children by intentionally setting fire to their home.
It was a blockbuster case here in Central Louisiana.
The Town Talk published reports suggesting that Kelley doused her children with gasoline before setting the fire and fleeing the scene. Kelley has always claimed that she briefly left her three small children alone at home in order to cash a check and then returned to find her home engulfed in flames. There were rumors of Satanic cults in the neighborhood, rumors that were repeated by Detective Bobby Sandoval in the 20/20 report, who said he was “suspicious” of Kelley within the first “five minutes” and claimed she didn’t show any emotions at the time.
In the 20/20 report, this claim is significantly undercut by the audio recording of Sandoval’s interview with Kelley. In the recordings, Kelley is obviously emotional and distraught. She repeatedly and vigorously denies the accusations, and she begs to take a polygraph, a request that was not granted.
Investigators believed they found evidence of arson, and indeed, a national expert had issued a report confirming such; I assume this “expert report” came with a price tag (The report’s author, John DeHaan, referred to the RPSO as a “client”). Investigators claimed there was a “gas trail” around the house; allegedly, an accelerant was used.
They believed they had evidence of spalling on the concrete floor of the home, not exactly a “gas trail” and certainly not proof that Kelley “doused” her children with gasoline, but one that, at the time, had suggested arson.
Incredibly, however, the day after the fire, the Louisiana State Fire Marshall apparently ordered that the burnt-out home be demolished and, in so doing, destroyed most of the physical evidence. As you can imagine, this only ramped up suspicions. The public became increasingly outraged and convinced that Kelley was responsible for the murder of her own children, a sentiment steadily justified by a nearly non-stop barrage of rumors, speculation, and accusations published and broadcast by local media.
The 20/20 report seemed particularly concerned by the ways in which our local media stoked a public disdain, likening The Town Talk‘s coverage to a “stampede of unfounded accusations,” asserting that “almost every day, another newspaper story, another rumor,” and, at the beginning of the broadcast, comparing it to a “witch hunt.” Among other things printed by The Town Talk but never substantiated by any physical, circumstantial, or anecdotal evidence: That Kelley never tried to enter the home and save her children, that Kelley tied her children up before leaving the home, and that Kelley doused her children’s bodies with gasoline. There were even rumors, reported by the news media, that Kelley was “distraught” after seeing her children “mimic” a sex act.
If all of this were proven to be true, then Kelley should rightfully be labeled a monster; the outrage of people in our community would certainly be justified. It is an unimaginable crime. But none of these accusations were ever proven or even backed up by evidence.
It was a terrible tragedy. Without a doubt, Kelley should never have left her small children unattended, even if only for a half an hour. But as a community looking back over the last nine years of this case, we need to be prepared to ask ourselves some important questions: Did the news media mislead us? Were detectives and investigators overly concerned with trying this in the court of public opinion? Why was Kelley publicly and officially accused of actions for which there was no evidence (i.e. tying up her children, dousing them with gasoline, etc.)? Why would a Sheriff’s Detective repeat, on national television, “rumors” he heard from members of his church that the Sherwood Forest neighborhood in Tioga had a problem with the “cult”? After all of these years, where is the evidence of a cult presence in Sherwood Forest? Seriously.
During the last few years, spalling has been debunked as evidence of an accelerant, and the Parish’s “expert” on the Kelley case, John DeHaan, eventually retracted his report. Another nationally-recognized arson expert, John Lentini, who was interviewed by 20/20, called DeHaan’s report on the Kelley case, “the most egregious misstatement of science that I’ve seen in my thirty-plus years of doing this.” Kelley’s attorney, Mike Small, told ABC News that DeHaan’s retraction reinforced what the defense’s experts had “been saying from Day One.”
The case against Kelley had relied, almost entirely, on DeHaan’s now-debunked and retracted analysis, and the murder charges against Ms. Kelley were reduced to negligent homicide, a result of her leaving her children unattended. She pled guilty in exchange for time served and is now living in West Virginia.
In fairness to The Town Talk, their final report on the Kelley case was exhaustive and definitive. Quoting (bold mine):
And while in many cases the prosecution and defense can see nothing eye-to-eye, at the end of this case, Rapides Parish Assistant District Attorney Mike Shannon was saying the same thing that Kelley’s defense attorney was saying: She didn’t set that fire.
“I’m convinced [Kelley's] guilty of negligent homicide,” said Shannon, one of the Rapides Parish assistant district attorneys who prosecuted the case. “I’m convinced she was irresponsible. I’m convinced if she’d been a more responsible parent, this wouldn’t have happened. But the only thing worse than losing your children may be being accused of intentionally killing them when there is no evidence that you did.”
Mr. Shannon was interviewed by 20/20, and throughout the report, he remained candid, professional, and direct. As he acknowledges, in this case, nine years later, despite the rumors and the innuendo, there is no evidence Ms. Kelley intentionally murdered her own children.
After watching the broadcast and pouring over past reports, I strongly believe that Mr. Shannon, the prosecutor, is absolutely correct: The only thing worse than losing your children is being accused of intentionally killing them when there is no evidence that you did.
Kelley says she still does not believe that justice was served. After serving four years in prison, she is still upset and rankled. She called Detective Sandoval “pathetic” and claimed that the police work was more like “Barney Fife” than “CSI.” Perhaps she has a right to be angry at everything hurled against her; our community newspaper published accusations against Kelley that painted her as a Satanic monster, accusations that were never backed up by evidence or proven in court.
Either way, in the end, the story is tragic, and either way, nothing will be retracted, regardless of the facts.