NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — After serving 30 years of life in Tennessee for the fire that killed his girlfriend, a 65-year-old man has been declared innocent and released from prison.
Claude Garrett was released from Riverbend Prison in Nashville on Tuesday after a judge vacated his murder conviction and a prosecutor dismissed all charges against him, news outlets reported.
“Garrett has established actual innocence,” said Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins.
Garrett was convicted of the 1992 murder of his girlfriend Lorie Lee Lance, 24, who died of smoke inhalation at their Nashville home.
Investigators at the time believed they had found evidence he started the fire, but fire science has improved over the past 30 years, and a prosecutor’s filing from last year says they no longer believe the fire was laid intentionally.
After an investigation uncovered several alternative theories explaining how the fire could have started accidentally, the Davidson County Attorney General’s Office sought to have his conviction vacated. The original conviction was based “on outdated investigative methods and baseless conclusions,” according to a statement released by the bureau on Tuesday.
The clearing of the case took years and was successful after an “extensive joint investigation” by prosecutors and the Tennessee Innocence Project, the statement said.
“The Court is satisfied that the petitioner has presented clear and compelling evidence showing that no reasonable jury would have convicted Claude Garrett of felony murder in the light of the new scientific evidence,” the judge wrote.
Garrett’s daughter Deana Watson said Tuesday she was glad her father was being released, although she wasn’t sure what his next steps would be.
“The plan is for him to hang out with me for a while and then we’ll find out,” Watson said. “We had a whole conversation about cell phones and how they work. We will help him to reintegrate into society.”
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