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Charges dropped against man convicted in 1984 Chicago fire

Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012 11:45 a.m. CST

CHICAGO (MCT) — A man who once faced the death penalty for his conviction for setting a 1984 house fire that killed a woman and her five children on Chicago’s South Side will be released from a downstate prison after Cook County prosecutors on Wednesday unexpectedly dropped the case against him.

James Kluppelberg, 46, who worked for a company that boarded up burned out and abandoned buildings, was convicted of setting the March 1984 fire that killed 28-year-old Elva Lupercio and her five children, ages 3 to 10, at their home in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Santos Lupercio, Elva’s husband and the father of the children, survived the fire. He could not be reached Wednesday.

Karl Leonard of the law firm Winston & Strawn said he planned to travel to Menard Correctional Center on Thursday and bring his client home — though prison officials said it was not clear just when Kluppelberg would be released. Leonard said he spoke with Kluppelberg after the hearing and had expected that prison officials already would have notified Kluppelberg that he was going to be released.

Kluppelberg, however, was surprised by the news.

“He was blown away,” said Leonard. “He said he had been praying for it for a long time and he couldn’t believe it was finally true.”

Although the fire was initially ruled accidental by the police department’s Bomb and Arson Unit, the cause of the blaze was changed by firefighters to arson — although no reports of a fire department investigation were written. Kluppelberg was charged after police said he confessed to the crime after being linked to other fires.

But the confession was ruled inadmissible in court because it had been coerced, and it was not used at Kluppelberg’s trial.

Kluppelberg was connected to the alleged crime by a friend he lived with, a three-time convicted burglar who said he saw Kluppelberg go back and forth to the Lupercio home and that Kluppelberg told him, “You know how I am when I feel I’m losing someone. I do stupid things.”

Kluppelberg maintained his innocence from the beginning. His attorneys on appeal argued that the fire was not even an arson, saying advances in fire science after Kluppelberg’s conviction changed how officials investigated fires. Among those advances: Indicators that investigators long believed meant a fire had been intentionally set simply were signs of a fire that burned especially hot or went to flashover and exploded.

A 2004 Chicago Tribune series, “Forensics Under the Microscope,” examined the advances in fire science and how the use of debunked arson indicators had led to possible wrongful convictions of hundreds if not thousands of people. In a follow-up story, the Tribune reported on the execution of a Texas man, Cameron Todd Willingham, even though fire investigators used the same debunked theories to win his conviction.

The friend who implicated Kluppelberg later admitted he had lied because he was facing his own criminal charges.

The attorneys also claimed prosecutors had failed to turn over information about a woman who had set a fire a block from the Lupercio home on the same night. That woman confessed to the other fire and told police she was too drunk to remember if she had set the Lupercio fire as well.

Kluppelberg was sentenced to life in prison when a judge rejected the death penalty in the case. Before the sentence was imposed, however, Kluppelberg was mistakenly released from Cook County Jail and made his way to Georgia, where he was captured and returned to jail. A jail guard was later charged with helping Kluppelberg go free; police said he did so after Kluppelberg helped him obtain cocaine.

Cook County prosecutors had been challenging the appeal efforts, but on Wednesday they told a judge they wanted to dismiss the charges.

Sally Daly, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, said the decision to dismiss the charges followed a “comprehensive post-conviction re-investigation” that included hiring an expert to evaluate the forensic evidence. That review, said Daly, led prosecutors to conclude the office could not “meet its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” It consequently decided to dismiss the case.

Leonard and Gayle Horn, an attorney from The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago’s law school, were surprised when prosecutors told the judge they were dismissing the case. But Leonard said a fire expert who analyzed the evidence for the lawyers offered a powerful rebuttal to the arson claims, essentially determining the indicators the fire department relied on had been debunked.

He said the prosecutors’ decision to drop the case “was a way to avoid deciding the merits of the case.”

“This was an unexpected victory,” Leonard said.

Kluppelberg, according to Leonard, said he had hoped to be out before his birthday on June 24.

“Now,” said Leonard, “he will be.”

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