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Top arson expert says mother convicted in notorious arson case could not have been guilty

15 Apr 2024 6 minute read
Annette Hewins and her daughter Nicole

Martin Shipton

One of the world’s top forensic experts on arson says a mother whose life was ruined after she was wrongly convicted of killing three people in a fire could not have been guilty.

Annette Hewins was convicted of arson with intent to endanger life following an attack on a house in Merthyr Tydfil’s Gurnos estate in 1995 that resulted in the deaths of Diane Jones, 21, and her daughters Shauna, two, and Sarah Jane, one.

Annette spent nearly two and a half years in prison before having her conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal on the basis that there was no credible evidence against her.

But the trauma of her unjust conviction, which involved being separated from her young children and giving birth in custody, led her to become a heroin addict in prison, and she never recovered, dying prematurely at the age of 51.

Now a BBC podcast series, narrated by Annette’s daughter Nicole Jacob, has been made to highlight the extremity of the injustice.

Petrol

It was alleged that Annette had bought petrol used by her niece Donna Clarke in the arson attack. A central part of the prosecution case was that Annette and Donna had siphoned the petrol out of Annette’s car on the forecourt of a filling station in Merthyr. Yet that was purely a police theory and there was no evidence to substantiate it.

Journalist Satish Sekar, who has written about the case extensively, said: “Once I heard about the case and once I started looking into it, I got more and more involved in it. It became clear that they should, at the very least, never have prosecuted Annette Hewins, In this particular case it should have been very clear. You have to answer this question: was the petrol used in the fire leaded or unleaded?

“During the trial, the prosecution showed CCTV footage from a petrol station in Merthyr Tydfil to the court.

“In the video, you can see that Annette put petrol in her car. She then moved the car to the forecourt, which was equipped with a vacuum cleaner, and cleaned the car. So you don’t have the video of them doing that.

“The police’s theory was that they had driven out of range of the video cameras and they alleged that at this time, they siphoned petrol from the car into a Lucozade bottle that Donna had bought in the shop. There’s no evidence – images or witnesses – who remember seeing what would have been a rather unusual sight of two women siphoning petrol in the garage forecourt.

“This led to the idea that the Lucozade bought at the garage had been contaminated with petrol. The petrol, if it had been added to the drink, would have formed a layer on top, and there was absolutely no evidence that that had happened.

“Nevertheless, the Crown argued that petrol was siphoned during the six and a half minutes that the car was out of sight of the security cameras. What Annette and Donna said was that they had been vacuuming the car. Snow’s Garage had a Hoover machine which ran for seven and a half minutes, and they had used it for six.”

Unleaded

Ultimately, however, the issue was irrelevant. The petrol bought by Annette was leaded, while that used in the arson attack was unleaded.

John Lentini, an American forensic scientist who is one of the world’s leading experts on arson, was interviewed for the podcast while attending a conference in Wales.

He said: “The thing about arson is it’s not a very subtle crime, and in fact in this case there’s no question that it was a set fire – it kind of jumps out at you. You pick up the carpet and it stinks of petrol. So this is a question of whodunnit – it’s not a question of what happened.

“But there are people who think that arsonists are very sneaky and get away with it a lot. I don’t agree with that. I have caught probably 400 arsonists in my career. Arson jumps up and bites you on the butt – it’s not that subtle a crime, unless you manage to turn the house to powder, and then it’s pretty hard.”

Mr Lentini said that in the US, police officers investigating arson cases would come up with an answer, and then work backwards to the questions. “At university you start with a question and come up with an answer, and then you can apply it,” he said.

“But people started applying police science just right away. You’re supposed to try to learn the truth rather than prove your hypothesis. In fact, when you do good science, you approach your hypothesis and try to disprove it. You don’t try to prove it – it’s called confirmation bias when you try to prove it. When you try to disprove it, you’re supposed to take into account that which doesn’t comport with your hypothesis.

“What I’ve seen in most of these cases is the prosecution starts out with two or three days of character assassination – and the weaker the science is, the more time they spend on character assassination. So by the time the science is brought in, the jury already hates the defendant. – and they don’t care if there is a little technical distinction among scientists.”

Lifestyle

In the Gurnos arson trial, the prosecution made much of the lifestyle of people living on the estate, and even the judge said it was expected that you would do drugs and have affairs.

But having spent hours looking through the case documents, Mr Lentini said: “If everything that I’ve heard is correct, the petrol on the carpet was unleaded.”

The implication of that was that Annette could not have been guilty.

Another flaw in the prosecution case was that it would have been physically impossible for Donna Clarke to have left a party, picked up a canister of petrol from her home, gone to Diane Jones’ house to carry out the arson attack and returned to the party in the 10 to 15 minutes alleged by the prosecution.

Mr Sekar, who has also conducted a video interview with former Kenyan marathon champion Simon Biwott to demonstrate that Ms Clarke would have to have been the fastest runner in the world to carry out the crime, said: “There is no credible case against Annette Hewins or Donna Clarke. It’s a complete and utter disgrace that those woman were taken to trial.”

Wrongly Accused: The Annette Hewins Story Episode 6 can be heard on BBC Sounds.


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Malcolm Jones
Malcolm Jones
1 month ago

My God what kind of defense team did the girls have you talk about a kangaroo Court that’s got nothing on this case them poor girl’s Lambs to the slaughter

Linda Jones
Linda Jones
1 month ago

So sad. Begs the question did they have a defence lawyer, if yes where were they.?Travesty of justice.

Louise GrAy
Louise GrAy
12 days ago

What has happened to the re-investigations . Is there an update? Has there been any progress? This is what Annette needed the real killers behind bars.

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