Former Jeannette (PA) Man Returns to Court to Appeal Conviction for House Fire that Killed Wife, Sons

Rich Cholodofsky

Tribune-Review, Greensburg, Pa.

(MCT)

Oct. 26—A former Jeannette man serving three consecutive life sentences in connection with the 1993 deaths of his wife and two young children in a house fire appeared Monday in a Westmoreland County courtroom as part of his ongoing appeal.

James C. Young, 54, has maintained since his 1995 trial that he was wrongly convicted of setting fire to the 14th Street home in which his 26-year-old wife, Gina Marie; his stepson, Shaun Holden, 3; and Joshua, the couple’s 7-month-old baby, were killed.

In his latest appeal, filed in 2017, Young contends evidence used against him to prove he used an accelerant to set the house ablaze as his family slept has since been debunked. County prosecutors said Young’s claims are invalid and that his appeal was filed years too late.

Older and bespectacled, Young testified Monday that for decades he has attempted to invalidate his conviction, but it was not until he contacted the Pennsylvania Innocence Project in 2016 that he was able to move forward with the appeal.

“Ever since I was convicted, I have not stopped,” Young testified.

He claimed prison officials denied him access to published arson investigation standards, a situation that left him unable to perfect his legal argument.

The prosecution contends the science of arson investigations hasn’t substantially changed in decades, and the defense’s own expert during Young’s 1995 trial argued there wasn’t sufficient evidence to conclude the fatal fire was intentionally set.

Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Feliciani ordered the appeal to be considered in two stages.

The first, on Monday, was to hear evidence that Young’s appeal — filed in 2017 by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project — was timely. The judge made no rulings. He ordered lawyers to submit written legal arguments in early 2022.

A second hearing, on the substantive merits of Young’s claim, will be conducted if the judge determines the appeal was timely filed.

Young admitted to police he and his wife were having marital problems at the time of the fire and he was immediately considered a suspect. According to evidence at the trial, investigators found gasoline cans outside the house and traces of fuel soaked into the diaper of Young’s infant son. Arson investigators testified during trial that the pattern of burns in the house suggested the blaze was intentionally set and that arson dogs detected evidence that an accelerant was used.

Meanwhile, witnesses testified they saw Young in his underwear walk on the roof of the house as it burned, and he refused to rescue his family as his wife pleaded for help from an upstairs window.

The defense argued that Young didn’t become aware of standard changes to fire investigations until well into the early 2000s and that a recent revision adopted in early 2021 by the National Fire Protection Association further debunked prior investigatory practices.

Craig L. Beyler, a private fire investigator with a Maryland consulting firm, testified that changes to investigation standards started in 1992 and not until the early 2000s did they become accepted among experts who examine the origins and causes of fires.

Those standards now call for limiting how dogs are used in the early stages of fire investigations and downplay the use of burn patterns to determine if a blaze was intentionally set, Beyler testified.

“There was a paradigm shift in fire investigations, and he (Young) has not had an expert evaluate the case prior to Dr. Beyler,” defense attorney Amelia Maxfield said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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