Russellville man serves 12 years of arson sentence before conviction dismissed

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (WBKO) -- After a house fire killed his two-year-old son 15 years ago, a Russellville man's arson conviction has been dismissed.

When the fire happened in 2004, investigators at the time deemed it intentional, despite what Robert Yell's lawyers say was an inability for investigators to give a scientific explanation for what indicated arson.

"They didn't sufficiently document the scene for somebody to come behind them and assess the conclusions that they made.," said Krista Dolan, one of Yell's lawyers, and a staff attorney for the Innocence Project of Florida.

Yell then served 12 years in prison before he was granted a new trial in 2016.

"I have no idea what their intent was. I don't know that it was malicious or not. I can't say," said Dolan. "But everybody has subconscious biases and so if you're called to the scene for a suspicious fire, you're entering that scene already under suspicion that it could be arson."

His counsel, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, presented findings from a fire investigation expert.

Logan Circuit Court Judge Tyler Gill deemed the techniques of the Commonwealth's fire investigators at the time of the incident as "erroneous" and just "rules of thumb" that were unreliable and decided to be invalid.

"What we have been told by many people that we've talked to in the field," said his other lawyer Amy Robinson Staples, of The Exoneration Project, "is that Mr. Yell's case is being used as an example and taught in courses to other fire investigators across the United States as an example of what not to do in a fire investigation."

His lawyers say the case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning they can find themselves back in court.

The former Commonwealth's Attorney, who is no longer involved in the case, had brought in the ATF to review the conclusions of the new fire investigation, but they still have yet to complete it.

Yell's lawyers said if ATF does finish their review and find a reason to re-indict him again, they'd be able to do so.

His lawyers feel confident though that that won't happen.

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