Woman freed after 42 years didn’t merit new trial
A woman who was released from prison after 42 years should not have been awarded a new trial, a Pennsylvania court panel has ruled, but whether she’ll go back behind bars remains to be seen.
The Superior Court panel decision says Letitia Smallwood, now 63, waited too long to file an appeal of her 1973 double-murder arson conviction. The ruling Wednesday rescinded her new trial and reinstated her convictions.
Prosecutors say a lovers’ quarrel prompted Smallwood, then 20, to set the blaze at a Carlisle apartment building, about 20 miles west of Harrisburg. During the early morning fire Aug. 29, 1972, a 23-year-old woman died after jumping from the third floor of the burning building and a 26-year-old man perished in the fire.
Smallwood has maintained her innocence.
She was released from prison in 2015 after Cumberland County Judge Edward Guido voided her conviction and granted her a new trial, citing investigators’ reliance on arson science that has since been discounted. Prosecutors appealed to the state’s Superior Court.
Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed on Thursday praised the ruling, but said for now he’s not seeking to have Smallwood returned to prison, citing her lawyers’ likely appeal.
“We remain firmly convinced Letitia Smallwood is guilty, and that is why we have taken the position we have taken,” he said.
Marissa Bluestine, of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which represented Smallwood, called the decision legally and factually flawed. She said she’s considering whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court or ask the full Superior Court to re-examine the decision.
She said the panel seems to say that had a jury heard this case today, Smallwood would be acquitted.
“Yet they are still looking at legal technicalities? That is troubling,” she said. “It is mind-boggling they reached this conclusion.”
KRISTEN DE GROOT
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