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Dougherty v. Beard

October 28, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sánchez, J.



On October 6, 2000, Daniel Dougherty was sentenced to death for killing his two sons by setting fire to his house while the boys slept. At his trial, an Assistant Fire Marshal for the Philadelphia Fire Department, John Quinn, testified the fire was intentionally set based on his interpretation of physical evidence at the scene. Quinn also testified Dougherty's recitation of the circumstances surrounding the fire was not credible. Dougherty's trial counsel cross-examined Quinn but did not introduce independent testimony or other evidence to dispute Quinn's conclusion the fire was, in fact, the result of an intentional act.

In post-trial proceedings, Dougherty has submitted two expert reports from fire investigators stating Quinn used faulty assumptions to conclude the fire was arson. Dougherty has also provided an affidavit from his trial lawyer in which the lawyer admitted he failed to give the case the attention it deserved. Dougherty's petition for post-conviction relief is currently pending appeal in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but he argues the extraordinary circumstances of this case merit this Court's intervention.

Although Dougherty's legal claims are compelling, this Court will stay Dougherty's habeas petition to give the Pennsylvania Supreme Court an opportunity to rule on this matter.


On August 24, 1985, Dougherty's two sons died in a house fire suspected to be arson. Fourteen years later, Dougherty's ex-wife, then in the middle of a custody dispute with Dougherty, told police Dougherty set the fire. Dougherty was arrested and charged with capital murder. At his trial, Quinn, a fire marshal for the Philadelphia Fire Department, testified (1) the fire was of incendiary origin; (2) the fire began in three separate locations; (3) Dougherty could not have been on the sofa when the fire began, as he claimed, because he would have been severely burned or killed; and (4) only the person who started the fire would be capable of escaping without injury. See Pennsylvania v. Dougherty, 860 A.2d 31, 35 (Pa. 2004). Dougherty's trial counsel did not conduct research or hire an independent fire expert to investigate whether there was sufficient physical evidence the fire was the result of arson. Instead, trial counsel relied on "personal experience" and "common sense." Petr.'s Ex. 2 at 2.

A jury convicted Dougherty of one count of arson and two counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to death. Dougherty appealed his convicted to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which upheld Dougherty's conviction and death sentence. See Pennsylvania v. Dougherty, 860 A.2d 31 (Pa. 2004). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismissed Dougherty's ineffective assistance of counsel claims without prejudice, ruling such claims should be presented only during a collateral review if they were not properly raised at trial. Pennsylvania v. Grant, 813 A.2d 726 (Pa. 2002). The United States Supreme Court denied his petition for certiorari on October 3, 2005, thus ending direct review of Dougherty's case.

On November 16, 2005, Petitioner filed a pro se request for state collateral review under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). After several requests for more time, Dougherty's new counsel filed an amended petition on November 13, 2006. In this filing, Dougherty provided reports from two independent fire investigators who claim Quinn's conclusion the fire was arson lacked an adequate scientific foundation. Dougherty has also provided an affidavit from his trial lawyer, now deceased, in which the lawyer admitted he had failed to investigate the fire due to his belief prosecutors lacked sufficient evidence to secure a conviction and because he suffered "substantial personal health and family problems" during the pendency of Dougherty's case. Petr.'s Ex. 2 at 4.

At the time Petitioner began filing motions in federal court, the PCRA court had not yet held a PCRA hearing. The same judge presided over both Dougherty's trial and his PCRA petition. The PCRA court failed to hold a hearing or rule on Dougherty's petition for 27 months. Dougherty argued the PCRA court was not impartial given its role in Dougherty's earlier proceedings, and filed a recusal motion on April 15, 2008. On February 26, 2009, Dougherty filed a complaint in mandamus to compel the PCRA court to rule on the Motion to Recuse and the PCRA petition. The court denied the recusal motion the following day. Dougherty sought to expedite his state court appeal of his PCRA claim, but this request was denied on July 15, 2009. He claims it will be years until the state court reviews his case.

On March 6, 2009, this Court granted Petitioner's motion for in forma pauperis status and appointed the Federal Defender and Ballard Spahr to represent Petitioner. On April 2, 2009, the PCRA court denied Dougherty's PCRA petition. No evidentiary hearing was held, a fact the court excused because Dougherty's trial counsel had since died. Dougherty's fire experts were not given the opportunity to testify, although they presented written reports to the court.

Petitioner filed his federal habeas petition on August 14, 2009. The Capital Defender characterizes Dougherty as an innocent man, alleging the fire was not arson. Since 1985, there have been many advances in the field of fire science, and researchers have contradicted fire investigators' claims that certain physical remnants of the fire--such as burn patterns, cracked glass, and charring--are indicative of arson.


Dougherty admits he has not exhausted his state court remedies as required by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b)(1)(A). To exhaust habeas claims, a state prisoner must "fairly present" all federal claims to the highest state court. 28 U.S.C. § 2254(b); O'Sullivan v. Boerckel, 526 U.S. 838, 842 (1999). If the petitioner currently has a state avenue available for raising his claims, a federal court generally must abstain from intervening. Id. The exhaustion doctrine addresses "federalism and comity concerns by affording the state courts a meaningful opportunity to consider allegations of legal ...

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