Trial Continues in Murray State Dorm Fire Case
By Candice Freeland
MURRAY, KY - Witnesses like Dr. Richard Roby are the kind that attorneys dream of - if he's your witness. If not, he's the kind of witness that will force an attorney to draw upon every skill he or she ever thought they had.
This was this case for Commonwealth Attorney Mark Blankenship Monday in the trial of Jerry Walker, a Paducah educator accused of starting a fire when he himself was a student at Murray State University in 1998. That fire killed one student and permanently injured another.
Dr. Roby is from Columbia, Maryland. He's a combustion engineer, and teaches students at the University of Maryland. He's also the President of Washington Science and Engineering Inc. He is likeable, compassionate, composed - and boy is he smart.
Blankenship was clearly agitated at having to take Roby to task for his near dismantling of test results from Blankenship's expert witness of last week, Dr. Greg Gorbett. Gorbett testified on Friday that, after a series of eleven tests, it was determined that it would take one-half to one gallon of gasoline to produce the damage seen in Hester Hall the night of September 18, 1998. Jerry Walker purchased 1.038 gallons of gas just 32 minutes before the fire at Hester Hall.
Roby conducted his own tests, using Gorbett's computer models, having been provided them in preparation for his testimony.
Roby concluded that it would take three gallons of gasoline to produce the damage to Hester Hall, based on "under ventilation", which occurs when there is very little leakage of air present. Had the hallway of Hester Hall been sealed up, Roby's tests showed that it still would have taken 1.44 gallons of gasoline to even begin the under ventilation process. When under ventilation is present, carbon monoxide turns to soot because there is no air present to allow it to continue to move and thrive. Roby testified that a layout of the 4th floor of Hester Hall from that night showed that windows and doors were open. Both Mike Priddy, who was seriously injured, and Mike Minger, who perished the night of the blaze, were found covered in soot. Roby stated that, since the hallway was not "sealed", there would have to be more than one-half to one gallon of gasoline present in order to produce the amount of soot that was found on the men.
Roby suggested that one gallon of gasoline could cause the damage seen in a smaller fire five days earlier. So why wasn't this demonstrated by Greg Gorbett last week? Roby explained a "problem" that can exist among scientists with a working theory called "Expectation Bias".
"Somebody knows that somebody bought 1.03 gallons of gas, and it needs to fit the theory" with which they're working. He likened it to someone saying they're "going to tell the funniest joke ever." When a person hears that said, they expect to hear a funny joke. After it's told, suppose the person doesn't think it's that funny. Is it because the joke really isn't funny, or is that person just not smart enough to get it?
At one point, Blankenship showed Roby pictures of the fire in Hester Hall on September 13, which was put out with a fire extinguisher. Blankenship stood within inches of Roby and asked him to declare how much gasoline was used in starting that fire. Roby said he had not been given information about that fire. Blankenship said sternly, "Well you're the fire expert. You should be able to tell by looking."
Roby responded calmly, "Well maybe that's how your experts tell..." but he said he uses calculations and science.
Blankenship asked him, "Can you sit there as a human being and tell me that if only one gallon of gasoline was used in this fire Michael Minger would not have died?"
Roby answered, "Yes."
The defense rested it's case Tuesday morning, and court adjourned for the remainder of the day. Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday morning in Marshall Circuit Court.