Man wins freedom, seeks clemency
Davey Reedy wants his name cleared of his conviction in the death of his two children.
By Laurence Hammack
Twenty-one years after he was sent to prison for starting a house fire that killed his two small children, Davey Reedy is still maintaining his innocence.
Only now, he's doing it as a free man.
Reedy was recently paroled and is living with his mother in Vinton.
Convicted on circumstantial evidence in 1988, Reedy has been trying ever since to clear his name. He filed dozens of jailhouse petitions before getting help from a local attorney and, later, a large law firm based in Philadelphia. Reedy's supporters over the years include his prison warden, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and an ex-police detective who looked into the case.
Although the Virginia Parole Board was aware of the long-standing innocence claim, one member said that was not a factor in its decision to release Reedy after he served 21 years of a sentence of two life terms plus 10 years.
"What the court found is what the court found," board member Michael Hawes said, referring to Reedy's convictions by a Roanoke jury of arson and two counts of felony murder. "We're not in the business of being an appeals court."
Yet the board continues to review information presented by Reedy's attorneys as part of a separate request for clemency. The board may make a recommendation later this year to Gov. Tim Kaine, who has the power to exonerate the 54-year-old Reedy.
Hawes cited a number of reasons the board granted parole: the amount of time Reedy has served, his "excellent record" as an inmate, the low likelihood that he would re-offend and the support of family members who wanted him free -- despite their loss of the two victims, 4-year-old Tina Marie and 2-year-old Michael Edward Reedy.
The two children died of smoke inhalation from a fire that gutted their Southeast Roanoke home the morning of Aug. 10, 1987. Reedy, who said he tried to save the children but wound up severely burned himself, was charged with setting the fire.
Prosecutors argued that Reedy torched his house while the children slept, then jumped out of a window, for one of two reasons: Either he bailed out of an intended murder-suicide, or he set the fire with the hope of rescuing his children and looking like a hero.
A key piece of evidence was gasoline traces found on Reedy's shirt. A prosecution witness also said Reedy had threatened to burn down his house, with himself and the children inside, before letting his ex-wife get custody of Tina and Michael.
But the case against him was circumstantial, and a relatively weak one at that, according to a Washington and Lee University law professor who in 1999 reviewed the trial transcript for The Roanoke Times.
The following year, a Roanoke judge took the unusual step of giving Reedy a chance to prove his innocence. Reedy argued that his ex-wife could have set the fire after becoming angry with him when he obtained custody of their children.
But after hearing two days of testimony, Circuit Court Judge Clifford Weckstein ruled that Reedy had "utterly failed to demonstrate that he is actually innocent."
Undeterred, Reedy filed a petition for clemency in 2003, asking then-Gov. Mark Warner to consider the same evidence Weckstein had rejected, along with some new points. The 65-page request, which Warner passed along to Kaine, cited a number of witness statements and arguments not made during Reedy's trial.
A forensic toxicologist questioned the methodology of tests that found a trace of gasoline on Reedy's shirt. Two witnesses recounted hearing the ex-wife make incriminating statements on at least three occasions. A third witness said she saw a car similar to the ex-wife's speed away from the burning house.
And in an effort to focus more suspicion on his ex-wife, Reedy pointed out that two other people close to the woman -- the father of her first child and her mother -- also had died in house fires.
Several years ago, after insisting for years that someone else set the fire, Reedy reversed course and began to argue that the blaze could have started accidentally, perhaps from a smoldering cigarette.
The change in strategy came after his attorney, Roberta Bondurant, enlisted the help of Cozen O'Connor, a law firm that specializes in arson investigations. In a letter to the parole board, attorneys Lawrence Bowman and Donald Waltz of the firm's Dallas office based their argument on an expert examination of the case that used scientific methods not available two decades ago.
The attorneys wrote that Reedy "has already been in jail for twenty years because of nothing more than bad science."
Bondurant is now asking Kaine to consider the possibility that the fire was an accident, along with the arguments raised in the initial clemency petition.
In 2006, three years after the parole board began to consider his clemency petition, Reedy became eligible for parole. At a hearing earlier this year, the board heard from witnesses including Waltz -- even though his comments went more to clemency than parole.
Asked if Reedy's innocence claim might have been a factor in the board's decision to release him, Bondurant said: "I'm not going to second guess the parole board's thinking on that. I'm just glad they did what they did."
Reedy was released in late April. Through his attorney, he declined to be interviewed.
Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but about 8,000 inmates convicted before then are still subject to the old laws.
Parole is becoming more rare in Virginia, as most of the remaining eligible inmates are serving long terms for serious crimes. The board granted parole in just 4 percent of the cases it heard in the most recent fiscal year. That compares with a rate of 40 percent in the years before parole was abolished.
Had the parole board kept Reedy in prison, his only hope would have been an absolute pardon from Kaine. He still hopes to clear his name through the clemency process, Bondurant said, or at least have his civil rights restored.
Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, who handled Reedy's case as an assistant prosecutor in Roanoke, was not surprised by Reedy's release.
"The way Virginia sees it, he's paid his debt to society," Branscom said. "I hope he uses this to his advantage."
In most cases, the parole board expects to hear petitioners accept responsibility before letting them go.
That never happened in this case.
"We told them that Mr. Reedy would not be accepting responsibility," Bondurant said. "He would have died in prison before he admitted criminal responsibility for the death of his children."