Father whose sons perished in 1985 fire declines to testify at murder retrial

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Daniel Dougherty was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 2000 for the murder of his two young sons, who died in an arson fire in the family's Oxford Circle rowhouse in 1985.

All that remains for Daniel Dougherty are the lawyers' closing arguments and the decision of the jury.

After that, he'll either be set free after 16 years, or returned to prison, condemned again for the 1985 arson murder of his two young sons.

Dougherty, 56, told the judge on Wednesday that he would not testify in his own defense. He said he did not know if he had ever been diagnosed with a mental illness, but had sought treatment after the deaths of 3-year-old John and 4-year-old Daniel Jr.

Questioned by Common Pleas Court Judge J. Scott O'Keefe, Dougherty said he understood all that occurred during his trial.

Dougherty's lawyers rested their case after calling a single witness - nationally known fire consultant John Lentini, who said Philadelphia investigators had no scientific basis to conclude that the rowhouse fire was arson.

The destruction to the Oxford Circle home was so extensive, he said, that it was impossible to determine where or how the fire started. The blaze could have been caused by a smouldering cigarette, he said.

The prosecution in the court-ordered retrial has relied on the 1985 findings of Assistant Fire Marshal John Quinn, and on fresh support of those findings by consultant and former fire marshal Thomas Schneiders.

Dougherty was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000. He has insisted from the start that he awoke to a house ablaze, ran outside, then tried desperately to save his sons.

He's counting on newer, better fire science to free him.

Quinn, who is too ill to testify, and Schneiders, who reviewed the case file, said the fire was set in three places - a sofa, a love seat, and under a dining-room table.

Prosecutors say Dougherty set the fire to hurt two women - his girlfriend, Kathleen Schuler, who owned the home, and the boys' mother, Kathleen Dippel, from whom he was separated. In anger over their rejections, he destroyed the house of one and the children of the other, prosecutors said.

The defense contends Quinn failed to recognize advancements in fire science and arson-detection that occurred in the 15 years between the blaze and Dougherty's first trial.

The failure of Dougherty's original trial lawyer to challenge Quinn on the science ultimately led an appellate court to grant a retrial. Dougherty's death sentence was converted to a life sentence in 2012.

Lentini runs Scientific Fire Analysis LLC in Florida, and has qualified as an expert in more than 200 court cases. On Wednesday, he continued to face a loud, mocking and at times shouting cross-examination from Assistant District Attorney Jude Conroy, who characterized his testimony as "your little presentation here, your dog-and-pony show."

Conroy demanded to know: Could the fire be arson?

"There's no evidence for it, but I can't rule it out," Lentini answered.

"Yes or no?" Conroy insisted.

"Yes," Lentini said.

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

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