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.

4 thoughts

  1. Did you even do ANY research on this case? It was obvious 20/20 didn’t. So yeah, if you want to run with the idea that the media mislead people, you can include 20/20, and now yourself.

    First off Dr. Dehaan never claimed the this fire was arson because of spalling. His entire case was based on multiple points of origin for where the fire started. They built models of that house and tried to get it to burn down as quickly as it did from a single point of origin, and could never achieve the same result. Dr. Dehaan isn’t just an expert, he is considered THE expert. The book that most fire investigators use as a reference for how to investigate fires was written by Dr. Dehaan. If you think that John Litini wasn’t paid for his opinion as well, then you are delusional. The only thing Litini has said was that it wasn’t arson, but in fact he doesn’t know if it was or not, the only thing he can say is that it could have happened the same way even with a single point of origin fire, but he can in no way state that it would be impossible for this to have been intentionally set. Do you get what I’m saying? It was nothing but a bait and switch tactic to keep talking about the spalling issue, it was discredited very early in the case and never mentioned again, but of course it made for good headlines as well for her defense attorneys .

    Secondly, Amanda left them home for nearly an hour, it was not a few minutes. Do you understand? She left a 3 year old home for an hour with a 6 and 10 year old. I could maybe stretch it and understand a 10 and 6 year old, if they are well behaved, but the 3 year old? Really? What is the 10 year old suppose to do if say the 3 year old falls down the steps? Call for help? Hmm, didn’t seem to happen when the house was on fire. In the middle of the day no less. Some of the rumors were started based on facts. Like rumors that the children were tied up. There was a lot of burnt up phone line around, and Im assuming during some brainstorming while trying to figure out why would not one child have managed to get outside when they were all awake in the house in the middle of the day and presumably well behaved. No one can figure out that one. The dousing with gasoline was based on how badly their bodies were burnt and from what I understand some higher than normal levels of certain chemicals in the blood that could have been caused by a high concentration of a type of accelerant. Well at least what blood they could actually get , because we know that they were unable to get any from the 6 year old because he was so badly burnt.

    As far as he being distraught over a sex act. Absolutely 100 percent true. She has admitted to this and had called her mother the night before in a panic, and even attempted to call her ex husband, well one of her ex husbands, the 6 year olds father, to talk to him about it. Also, no one ever said there was a cult in sherwood forest, they said the church she was going to was believed by many to be a little on the weird side, almost cult like. The investigator didn’t just fabricate that out of thin air, he added that to the pile of other evidence because that is what he was told by countless individuals who knew Amanda and where she went to church. So what is he to do with that information? Just brush it aside as rubbish, because What? Sherwood Forest? No way.

    Do you even understand how much evidence has been completely left out of your story and the 20/20 show? If they had outlined even a 1/3 of what they have, it would have taken the entire hour of the show, and ruined the whole reason they were doing the show to begin with, which was to discredit the science of arson investigations. Its actually pretty easy, since Arson is one of the most difficult crimes to prove, and as long as you keep saying you didn’t do it, that is usually all it takes. I don’t think I heard anything on 20/20 about how Amanda changed her account of what happened several times, each one different than the last, fortunately they recorded them all. I don’t remember hearing anything about the letter Amanda wrote to the man she was seeing on the side, saying something about how she was sorry that she had so much “baggage” in her life. This wasn’t long before the children managed to sit in the house waiting to die never attempting to break a window, go down the stairs, call for help etc. I don’t remember hearing anything about how the doctors who examined her testified that she showed little to no signs of smoke inhalation which was not consistent with what she says she tried to do and why she said she couldn’t do it. It was said that if the smoke had been as thick as she says, she would have been coughing for days. Instead we hear reports of nurses in the psych ward where she was staying saying they were very disturbed at how she reacted throughout the whole ordeal. Seeing all sorts of people react after having things tragically happen to their children, they couldn’t figure out why she acted so calm and could be heard laughing and joking in her room quite often. Not one person in the hospital or even at the scene ever saw or testified to have seen her shed one single tear during this entire ordeal. They did say that she appeared to be crying and distraught during the event, but noticed after a while that she was completely dry of any actual tears. Do you think maybe she was dehydrated?

    Dont get me started about Mike Shannon. That man is only one who deserves the title pathetic. He never once put forth any effort in this case. He had that case dumped on him after the previous DA retired after his paper work mishap that caused a triple homicide case to be thrown out by a judge who had been hearing the case for less than 30 days. Mike Shannon did not have the time or the desire to take on a case in which he had to read 10s of thousands of documents in order to get caught up with a case that had been going on for years. The only ones in the office that knew anything about the case was the previous DA’s assistant, who by the way still works there, and by the way still thinks Amanda is guilty. I personally spoke to Shannon the same week he took over the case, THE SAME WEEK. After having talked to this man, I felt disgusted and honestly wondered if I had accidentally called Amandas attorney by mistake. This was before he had even read one page of evidence. Do you think he may have been just a little biased before he even attempted to take this case on? The fact is, this man didn’t want this case, and was trying to find something, anything to help him get out of it. What is the worse that could happen? It wasn’t even his case to begin with, so if he says, Oh our bad, there was no evidence, then who is the finger going to be pointed at? The previous DA, not him. If he pursues the case and tries to win against Small, who he knows has tons of resources at his disposal and all the time in the world, and loses, then it becomes HIS fault. The only way for this to work out in his favor was to just get rid of the case, which he did.

    He badgered Dehaan and by his own admission trying to scare him into backing out of the case. He called it just practicing how Dehaan would react in court if questioned by Small. There has definately been a huge injustice done in this case, in it was to the children.

    1. You did very little condensing with a whole lot of personal opinion and sarcasm thrown in. If you are going to try and discredit a 9 year investigation based on one biased news report which had an agenda, without doing any research of your own to see if just maybe any of this stuff adds up, then you are no better than the local media you are talking trash about. The fact is, everyone jumps to conclusions and makes up their mind about things based on the first or the last thing they hear about something without knowing any real facts, but if you are a journalist, or attempting to publish something that is considered news, then I think it is your responsibility to do some research.

      You are defending a woman who may very well have murdered 3 children. If this case was so open and shut like Mike Small kept saying it was, then he wouldn’t have had to wait nearly a decade to resolve this, when the state was ready to take this to a jury years and years ago. Then ultimately he ended up getting it thrown out over some paperwork mishandling. He didn’t prove anything, her innocence or guilt was never proven, and he never intended to even try if he could help it, because he knew had this gone to trial, she would have never set one foot outside of that jail. So all he did was wait and keep filing meaningless motion after motion for nearly 10 years until he got the right judge behind him, and then uh oh, look what we found. How long ago did this happen????? That Judge didn’t know anyhing about the case yet and just tosses it out completely over something that simple. It would be like putting a jaywalker in prison, the punishment just didn’t fit the crime, The Supreme court even commented that it seemed a bit harsh, but assumed he had his reasons. Oh brother. Small knew that Judge would take it over board, and that is exactly what he had been waiting for. Amanda plead guilty for her time served charge and ran for the hills. There was no way she ever intended on letting a Jury see all the evidence they had on her. They would have thrown away the key on her.

  2. JLH,

    Again, my intent was not to re-litigate this case or to defend Ms. Kelley, only to recapitulate a nationally broadcast, hour-long report set in Central Louisiana.

    I watched the report again, and I believe I did a fair job high-lighting key points and the narrative it presented.

    You obviously have a personal opinion about this, and it seems to be informed by your own personal experience.

    Again, thank you for your comments and for providing a cogent counter-point to the 20/20 report.

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