After years proclaiming innocence, Texas man admits to setting 1986 fire that killed 2 boys

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DALLAS — A Texas man admitted Tuesday to setting a backyard fire that killed his two young stepsons a quarter-century ago, bringing a surprising end to a long fight over whether faulty fire science had wrongfully imprisoned him.

Ed Graf pleaded guilty to two counts of murder while a jury in Waco was deliberating during his retrial. He took a plea deal that carries a 60-year prison sentence but counts his 28 years in custody as time served, making him immediately eligible to apply for parole.

Authorities have spent years studying arson murder cases in Texas, where the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the fire deaths of his three children has been questioned by legal advocates and fire experts. Graf's case was one of the longest and highest-profile being studied by experts and officials in the state. Willingham's former attorney, Walter Reaves, later became one of Graf's lawyers on appeal.

The State Fire Marshal's Office is working with the Innocence Project to review problematic cases and has flagged several as being based on faulty conclusions.

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, said he didn't see Graf's case as a setback.

"The most important thing is that we get the science right," Blackburn said. "Not everybody who got convicted on the basis of junk science is innocent. Not everybody who got convicted on the basis of junk science deserves an acquittal or a pardon, and this is proof of that."

Prosecutors accused Graf of locking his stepsons, ages 8 and 9, in a backyard shed in Hewitt in 1986 and setting it on fire. They said he wanted to collect on life insurance policies on them.

But a panel convened by the State Fire Marshal's Office concluded that the two investigators who testified against Graf in 1988 were wrong. The panel said those experts misinterpreted photos of burn patterns and other evidence to say that the fire was set intentionally. The panel did not issue an opinion on whether Graf was guilty.

Texas' highest criminal court agreed with the panel and granted Graf a new trial.

Graf repeatedly insisted he was innocent, telling The Associated Press in a jailhouse interview two years ago that he thought the boys may have set the fire by accident. Witnesses testified at both of his trial that Joby and Jason Graf liked to play with matches.

Prosecutors did not present any scientific evidence, but relied on witness testimony suggesting Graf had embezzled money from a bank and was acting suspiciously before and after his sons' deaths.

Graf's ex-wife, Clare Bradburn, had long insisted that she believed her ex-husband was guilty. Bradburn said in court Tuesday that she had waited 28 years for Graf to finally plead guilty, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported.

According to the newspaper, the son they had together, whose name was changed from Edward Graf III to Jacob Bradburn, told Graf in court: "May God have mercy on your soul because no one on this Earth should."


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