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Westmoreland

Jeannette man seeks new trial in 1993 fatal arson case

Rich Cholodofsky
| Tuesday, May 23, 2017, 5:21 p.m.
The Innocence Project seeks a new trial for James Young, who was convicted of killing his wife and two children by setting his Jeannette house on fire.
The Innocence Project seeks a new trial for James Young, who was convicted of killing his wife and two children by setting his Jeannette house on fire.
Gina Marie Lupson-Holden-Young and her children, Shaun Lupson-Holden and Joshua Lupson-Young, died in a house fire set by James Young on June 9, 1993. The Innocence Project is seeking a new trial for Young on May 23, 2017.
Gina Marie Lupson-Holden-Young and her children, Shaun Lupson-Holden and Joshua Lupson-Young, died in a house fire set by James Young on June 9, 1993. The Innocence Project is seeking a new trial for Young on May 23, 2017.

Pat Lupson's daughter could have celebrated her 50th birthday next month with her two adult sons — if not for an intentionally set fire that tore through their Jeannette home nearly a quarter century ago, killing them.

Lupson traveled to Greensburg from her home in Maryland to attend a hearing Tuesday for her son-in-law James Young, who seeks a new trial in connection with the fatal fire in 1993 that took the life of his 26-year-old wife, Gina Marie; his stepson, Shaun Holden, 3; and Joshua, the couple's 7-month-old baby.

“I had to be in this courtroom again and visibly see him again. I didn't want him to think I went away. We're still here,” Lupson said. “My daughter would have turned 50 on June 1, and we should be celebrating that event and not going to the cemetery.”

Young, 50, was convicted in 1995 of three counts of first-degree murder and is serving three consecutive life prison terms. A series of appeals filed over the past two decades failed, but Young has enlisted the Innocence Project of Pennsylvania to take over his case. His new lawyers contend the evidence used against him 22 years ago was flawed.

Innocence Project attorney Elizabeth DeLosa said Young should receive a new trial.

“The investigation in this case didn't use scientific methods we use today. It calls into question the reliability of the verdict,” she said.

Since his arrest, Young maintained he did not set fire to the 14th Street home as his family slept. Evidence at trial focused on Young's apparent disregard for the safety of his family as he walked on the roof in his underwear as neighbors testified that he refused to go inside and attempt to rescue his wife and sons. Witnesses said they saw Young's wife at an upstairs window pleading for help before she apparently fell unconscious and succumbed to the smoke and fire.

Investigators found gasoline cans outside the house and traces of fuel soaked into the baby's diaper. Detectives said the pattern of burns in the house suggested the fire was intentionally set and an arson dog detected evidence that an accelerant was used, according to witnesses.

Still, Young, who admitted that he and his wife were having marital issues and were in counseling, claimed at trial and throughout his appeals that he did not set the fire and that it likely was an accident.

According to court documents filed this year, the defense hired its own expert fire investigator who, after reviewing the evidence against Young, determined there was no proof that the fire was arson or that an accelerant such as gasoline was used.

Craig L. Beyler, a private fire investigator with a Maryland consulting firm, issued a 28-page report in which he claimed the fire was not intentionally set. He said the science of arson investigations has changed over the past 20 years and no longer relies on burn patterns and detection of accelerants by dogs.

“Today, a fire investigator would not find this fire to have been incendiary,” Beyler wrote.

The defense claims federal appeal courts have in recent years overturned arson convictions based on the new science of fire investigations and, as a result, Young's case should be reconsidered.

“In order for there to be felony murder, you have to prove the fire was intentionally set. If it was accidental, there was no crime and this was simply a tragic, tragic incident,” DeLosa said.

Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Feliciani said he will have to determine whether he has jurisdiction to hear Young's appeal and ordered prosecutors to submit a written response to the defense allegations. Assistant District Attorney Leo Ciaramitaro said following Tuesday's hearing that Young's convictions should stand.

“We believe the jury correctly decided the case in 1995, and three consecutive life sentences were the appropriate sentence,” he said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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