- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

CARLISLE, Pa. (AP) - A central Pennsylvania woman sentenced to life in prison more than four decades ago in a fatal arson case has been granted a new trial.

Cumberland County Judge Edward Guido on Monday granted the request of Letitia Smallwood, 62, of Carlisle to vacate her 1973 conviction. She is scheduled for a bail hearing Friday.

Smallwood was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in an August 1972 fire in Carlisle that killed two people. On appeal, she argued that new scientific methods have called the convictions into question.

In his ruling, the judge cited what he called a “revolution” that has taken place in arson investigations into causes and origins of fire over the last 20 years.

Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, called the judge’s decision “a life-changer.” She told PennLive.com that when she called Smallwood with the news, she is sure neighbors down the street “heard her (Smallwood) yelling with joy.”

District Attorney David Freed said he intends to appeal the judge’s decision to state Superior Court.

Police alleged that Smallwood, then 20, deliberately set the blaze amid a lover’s quarrel. They said that the day before the fire, she threatened the boyfriend of one of the residents of the building, 23-year-old Paula Wagner.

Wagner died after jumping from the third floor of the burning building. Steven Johnson, 26, was also killed by the fire.

“For four decades, she always said she had nothing to do with it,” Bluestine said.

Dr. Jason Sutula, testifying as an expert witness for the defense, said in January 2014 that the cause of the blaze was undetermined. He testified at a hearing in December that some of the methods a state police investigator used in 1972 to conclude that arson was involved have since been discounted.

Prosecutors argued at that hearing that Smallwood would have had earlier opportunities to raise the issues and consulted another fire investigator in 1999 about her case.



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