WASHINGTON, D.C., September 23, 2020 - Baker Botts L.L.P. is delighted to announce that its client, Charles “Jason” Lively, who the firm represented pro bono, was exonerated and freed today after spending 15 years in prison for an arson and murder he did not commit.
Jason was convicted and sentenced to life for allegedly setting a 2005 fire that killed Dr. Ebb K. Whitley (known as “Doc Whitley”)—a prominent West Virginia political figure and town doctor—in his Iaeger, West Virginia home.
Investigators came to suspect arson after testing showed the presence of toluene, a common solvent, in a floor sample where the fire had burned. Authorities suspected Jason because his mother, Whitley’s assistant, had been in an argument with Whitley the day before.
Years later, in 2012, the Discovery Channel produced a “True Crime” documentary on his case. It featured state investigators and Jason’s prosecutor—Sid Bell, the Prosecuting Attorney for McDowell County, WV—who explained how they had “cracked” the case. The producers likely never could have imagined that, another half-decade later, Mr. Bell would be working to free Jason.
In reality, Mr. Bell harbored doubts about Jason’s conviction and had hired a new fire science expert, Dr. Craig Beyler, to review the case around the same time as the documentary.
Dr. Beyler concluded in a 2012 report to Mr. Bell that it was scientifically impossible for the fire to have been incendiary (intentionally set by a human being). Mr. Bell provided the Beyler Report to Jason’s habeas lawyers, stating that it was “clearly exculpatory.”
Yet at Jason’s habeas hearing, no one called Dr. Beyler. Rather, Mr. Bell (now retired) was called as a witness and asked about the Beyler Report, which he had not been prepared to discuss. Mr. Bell mistakenly misdescribed the report as not clearing Jason. And somehow no one noticed the error.
The error was finally discovered after the West Virginia Innocence Project contacted Baker Botts seeking assistance on Jason’s case. Baker Botts contacted Dr. Beyler, who was so disturbed that he traveled to West Virginia three times, paying his own way, to explain his findings to state and local authorities.
This led to a new investigation by the West Virginia Attorney General’s office, and a second expert being hired to double-check Dr. Beyler. This second expert, Dr. Glen Jackson of West Virginia University, not only confirmed Dr. Beyler’s conclusions, but also found that false evidence was presented by a State lab technician at Jason’s trial.
Sid Bell, for his part, executed a pair of affidavits acknowledging these errors and that Jason was innocent. He became an invaluable ally in fighting for Jason’s exoneration—a painstaking slog that even included threats of arrest for the team’s investigative work.
“This day is the culmination of a years-long odyssey for our team and a years-long nightmare for our client,” Jason’s lawyers said. “The evidence of Jason’s innocence was irrefutable, and we are grateful that the State is doing the right thing by setting him free.”
The case will soon be entered in The National Registry of Exonerations.
The Baker Botts team included Andrew George, Jamie Lynn, Daniel Starck, Cailyn Reilly Knapp, and Adam Dec in Washington, D.C. They were joined by a team of volunteer in-house counsel at Amazon led by Katie Avery, and at COLSA Corporation (former Baker Botts partner Stan Soya), as well as by co-counsel at the West-Virginia Innocence Project.
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