News

Guilty Plea Series: The Case of Angela Garcia

By Innocence Staff

Angela Garcia

There was a mix of sadness, relief and confusion in the courtroom as Angela Garcia pleaded guilty to starting the fire that killed her two young daughters, 2-year-old Nijah and 3-year-Nyeemah. After nearly 20 years of fighting to prove her innocence, Garcia, who was 24 when she went to prison, accepted a plea deal that required she admit to arson and involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a reduced sentence, in order to finally have her freedom.

Angela Garcia with her two daughters in 1998.

Background

On the evening of Saturday, November 20, 1999, a fire broke out inside of Garcia’s East Cleveland home. Despite rescue efforts, both of her daughters died of smoke inhalation. After reviewing the scene and sweeping the grounds with an accelerant-sniffing dog (that did not detect any flammable liquids), investigators concluded that the fire was likely a tragic accident caused by an unattended burning candle in the dining room.

A month later, the cause of the fire was changed from “accidental” to “incendiary” after investigators reviewed Garcia’s insurance claim and concluded that she had overvalued the contents of her home. In February 2000, Garcia was indicted on charges of aggravated murder, manslaughter and insurance fraud.

Ohio prosecutors tried to convict Garcia three times, initially seeking the death penalty. The first two trials ended in mistrials after the juries were unable to unanimously decide whether Garcia had intentionally set the fire, though the first jury found her guilty of insurance fraud. During the third trial, prosecutors called more than 50 witnesses, many of whom had not testified in the earlier trials, including an FBI crime scene expert and forensic auditor, and presented new evidence they said showed that a second fire was started on the staircase to the second floor.

After 12 hours of deliberations over two days, the third jury found Garcia guilty of all charges: four counts of aggravated murder, two counts of murder and three counts of arson. In May 2001, Garcia was sentenced to two life terms in prison. She would be eligible for parole after 49 1/2 years. She would be 72 years old. Garcia was also ordered to pay a $60,000 fine.

Post-conviction

Garcia and her family members, along with her attorneys, maintained that she was innocent throughout her three trials. After nearly a decade in prison, the Ohio Public Defender’s Wrongful Conviction Project took on Garcia’s case. In 2015, she won a rare evidentiary hearing, with her attorney Assistant Ohio Public Defender Joanna Sanchez arguing that Garcia was entitled to a new trial due to advances in fire and arson science.

Sanchez argued that the testimony of the prosecution’s expert witnesses relied on outdated and widely debunked theories that would be inadmissible in a courtroom today. Specifically, in the third trial, prosecutors introduced photographs—that they claimed to have found just prior to the beginning of the third trial—that had not been developed. The two new witnesses testified, based on the newly-discovered photographs, that the fire started at two distinct locations, the dining room and staircase leading to the second floor. Fire investigators described “puddle patterns,” which they said could be used to determine that an accelerant was used to exacerbate the fire. The “puddle pattern” theory has been widely disproven since the 1999 fire, with fire investigation guidelines now stating that puddle patterns are not a reliable indicator of the presence of an accelerant. According to a renowned fire expert who reviewed the investigation and testimony in Garcia’s case, the conclusions reached by fire investigators were outdated and lacked scientific validity.

Plea

On May 9, 2016, after nearly two decades of fighting to prove her innocence, Garcia accepted a plea deal requiring that she admit to setting the fire, upholding the aggravated arson conviction while reducing the aggravated murder charges to involuntary manslaughter.

The deal came on the morning a judge was set to consider whether Garcia would get a fourth trial. Rather than gamble on the possibility of a new trial—which, if granted, still carried the risk of another guilty verdict and potential life sentence—Garcia could be released from prison in six years. Under the plea agreement, her sentence was reduced to 22 years in prison, 17 of which she had already served.

“Surely the prosecutor’s office knew that for Garcia, who had been tried three times, already spent more than 15 years in prison, and was looking at a minimum of 27 more years before she could possibly be released, the deal was too good to pass up,” Sanchez said. “By offering the plea, they prevented it from becoming public that the fire investigation unit had employed unscientific methodology in arson cases for years and that the prosecutor’s office had wrongfully convicted a woman of murdering her two children.”

To learn more about why innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, visit the guilty plea problem website here.

12 Comments

  1. Brenda Singleton

    What a heartfelt story. The justice system in this, and many cases across the country, should be called the injustice system.
    I can’t begin to put myself in your shoes, but I empathize with your story and I want you to start looking forward to a brighter future right now. I don’t know how you can heal from this huge transgression that has basically ended your life as you knew it, but I reiterate, start planning for a brighter future now.

  2. Virgenia Sykes

    My heart goes out to her. She lost her daughters and went to prison for something she didn’t do. The justice system is not good, unreliable and needs to be improved ALOT. I pray that God gives her strength to make it through this nightmare. There are a lot of innocent people in prison because of the legal system.

  3. Virgenia Sykes

    My heart goes out to her. She lost her daughters and went to prison for something she didn’t do. The justice system is not good, unreliable and needs to be improved ALOT. I pray that God gives her strength to make it through this nightmare. There are a lot of innocent people in prison.

  4. Maria Hunter

    I have not heard any of the evidence and in the assumption that you are innocent, I am sorry that the only realistic option was to accept the plea bargain. As a mother myself, my heart goes out to you. I am sorry that the judicial system is so damn crocked. I just finished reading “just mercy” and I am damn sure that the color of skin had much to do with your conviction. I hope you get out soon and can gain some normalcy to your life. God be with you and may your babies Rest In Peace.

  5. Carlor Beard

    It is so unjust that people are made to plead guilty to crimes they did not do because they are in trouble. So pleading guilty to a lesser crime is better than taking your chances in a trial. There are many innocent people in jail and they are thrown there without hesitation and forgotten.
    This system is broken. It definitely does not work for the poor, uneducated and less fortunate people.
    And, if a person has paid for their crime, why are they punished forever in society???
    Wrong and unjust!

  6. Candy Lane

    I’m praying for you Angela Garcia, may your mind, body and soul be set free!

  7. Lorraine Sone

    It’s stories such as these that motivate me more than ever to continue furthing my education so that I can attend Case Western for law school. Then, I’ll be sure to work my ass off to pay off my student loans (realistically lol) That way, I can get to a place where I can assist innocent men and women, such as Angela, who were unjustly convicted of crimes they did not commit, pro bono. My heart breaks for her, no one should have to suffer like this.

  8. Barbara Dahms

    I God protect you. I am sorry about your daughters’ death. I believe it was definitely
    Accidental.

  9. Mr. Terry West

    Only those of us who have fallen prey to our corrupt legal system know how unjust it truly is, they lie hide evidence add more charges especially if you claim your rights. Forced plea bargains have destroyed any semblance of justice as hundreds of thousands of innocents languish in prison! Stay strong my friend and never stop fighting this evil!

  10. Susannah Lewis

    Dear Angela,
    I hope you get to read this. I am Susie Jones (although the authorities do not recognise my married name here) and I live in Madrid Spain with my husband who was born and raised in Ohio. I am a follower of the Innocence Project and I believe they do very important work raising awareness and support for stories such as yours.
    So many aspects of your story move me. The fact that you are black and almost certainly battling ingrained prejudices, that you live in Trump’s America – with a justice system that promotes the “well being” and public image of the prosecution system over and above the real well being of people being tried and the needs of honest and decent people.
    You are a martyr and victim of the system – a cruel and unjust and unAmerican, unconstitutional system! Your story deserves to be heard and your truth vindicated.
    But you are also a grieving mother and part of a grieving family and for that I bow my head in sorry and shame for all that you have suffered and pray that in some part of your soul you can begin to find the peace that you deserve.
    Don’t give up hope Angela! There are people who care in this world and who are fighting to bring to light the injustice of your case and help you win a different verdict.
    Your name already stands for something and your story is being heard around the world.

    I pray for your success and healing. SJx

  11. Euphemia Taylor Smith

    As I read this article tears form in my eyes and outrage in my heart. This stinks of injustice and abuse of authority. The prosecution instead of making a wrong right and setting her free comes up with this disgusting plea deal. This system needs a complete overhaul. I’m sorry that it takes situations like this to make people realize it’s time for change.

  12. Tish Brown

    My heart goes out to you. The system is beyond flawed. I have a couple of questions if you don’t mind…
    Was the exact cause of the fire ever discovered?
    Was the cause something only an adult could be responsible for?
    Judging by the length of your sentence it appears that the state believed the fire was intentionally set, is this so?
    What did the state propose as your alleged motive?
    I pray that you return to your family and can have a chance at a new life. Hold your head

Leave a Reply

Featured news