It's estimated that 4% to 6% of people incarcerated in the United States are actually innocent. And unfortunately, a markedly high number of those who are wrongfully convicted are minorities. Convicting innocent people often comes about due to shoddy police work, coercive interrogations, or lack of technology to properly analyze evidence. While many cases often focus on DNA evidence, one man recently saw his conviction overturned due to an unexpected source—MythBusters.
John Galvan had already served 21 years of his life sentence when he happened to catch a re-run of the Discovery Channel show in 2007. Galvan, who was in prison for a crime he didn't commit, was amazed by what he saw on the screen. MythBusters hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage were dispelling Hollywood myths by attempting to scientifically recreate scenes from movies. Galvan was instantly interested when he saw them try to use a cigarette to light a pool of gasoline. Their attempt failed miserably and the duo concluded that this common trope from action films isn't actually possible.
Galvan immediately called his lawyer. He was only 18 years old when he was arrested in 1986 for lighting a fire in a Chicago apartment that killed two brothers, one of whom may have been a gang member. Two of the brothers' siblings managed to escape and told police they believed a female neighbor started the fire in retaliation for her own brother's death at the hands of the Latin Kings gang.
When questioned by the police, the neighbor denied any wrongdoing and pointed the finger at Galvan. Others interviewed also fingered two other young men in the neighborhood. Even though Galvan had been asleep at his grandmother's house the night of the fire and there was no other evidence to implicate him, police arrested him and the two others who has been implicated.
Using force and deceptive interrogation techniques, which at the time were legal, Galvan was told that he could go home if he turned on the other boys. Galvan has also asserted that while asserting his innocence he was beaten by the detective leading the interrogation and was told he'd get the death penalty if he didn't confess. Eventually, all three boys, worn down by the detectives, signed statements stating that they were guilty of the crime.
Many years later, the details of those signed confessions would become important. They claimed that the men had started the fire by throwing Molotov cocktails through the window and that, importantly, Galvan had lit his with a cigarette. So when Galvan, now a 39-year-old man, saw the MythBusters episode prove that, scientifically, that was impossible, he knew it might help his case. Luckily, his lawyer Tara Thompson, who works with the Innocence Project, had also caught the same episode and they began investigating the science behind arson.
“It was honestly shocking to me…I feel like all of us have seen movies—like Payback is a famous one—where they light the gasoline in the street with a cigarette and a car explodes, and I really had never given much thought to whether or not that might be real,” she said. “When I watched this MythBusters episode, as a lawyer, it made me realize that there are things you have to look deeper into—you can’t assume that you understand the science until you’ve looked into it.”
As they dug in further, they found even more evidence to back up what the TV show had shown. That same year, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) conducted experiments on igniting gasoline with cigarettes. They made 2,000 attempts to light the gasoline under different conditions and were never successful. They too concluded that it simply wasn't possible.
“Despite what you see in action movies, dropping a lit cigarette onto a trail of gasoline won’t ignite it, assuming normal oxygen levels and no unusual circumstances,” said Richard Tontarski, a forensic scientist and then chief of the ATF’s fire research laboratory.
Unfortunately, Galvan had to wait another decade until he was granted a hearing on his post-conviction claims. But in 2017, Thompson was finally able to present their findings to the court. In addition, they provided seven witnesses including those who attested to also being tortured by the same detective who had interrogated Galvan and an arson expert who testified that Galvan's confession statement was scientifically impossible.
Still, Thompson was shocked to see prosecutors deny that the science was correct. She points to this as a critical weak point in the justice system. “I find that very telling about the state of science and the law…that these things that we probably should accept as true in the legal space, the system does not always want to accept.”
If the state of Illinois had a change-in-science law that provided mechanisms for case reviews in situations like this, where the basis of the conviction is science that has been debunked, Galvan may have been released much sooner.
Instead, after several appeals, he had to wait until 2022 to gain his freedom. At the same time, the other two men who were also wrongfully convicted of the crime also saw their convictions vacated. After a combined 105 years in prison for a crime they didn't commit, all three men are now free.
While Galvan can't make up for the 35 years he's missed and doesn't deny the difficulty of trying to adapt to a new world, he's looking forward to having his own space to call home. If you'd like to help him on his journey to rebuild his life, check out his Amazon Wishlist.