Thirty-five years ago, James Hugney of Susquehanna Township was convicted of arson and second-degree murder. A jury believed he poured gasoline around his 16-year-old son’s bed and set the house on fire.
His son Jimmy died five days later.
Hugney, now 71, says he is innocent and claims new evidence can prove it.
“I am so happy. I have a hope now. It is hard. Tears are running down my face,” Hugney said.
Attorney Justin McShane is handling the case. He says photos of the crime scene and new forensic fire science show there was no arson at Hugney’s house on Bamberger Road.
“What they misjudged here is what we call pour patterns, where gasoline was allegedly poured,” McShane said. “They mistook the act of ventilation or the wind pushing the fire through a window above the bed as a pour pattern. It was clearly accidental. There is no proof whatsoever there was arson, accelerant, that it was man-made, or anything having to do with that based on the science of any of the pictures.”
Hugney’s family is supporting his last chance for a new trial. Among his supporters is his fiance, Ann Walsh. The two became pen pals 20 years ago.
“I know I love him and I know he is innocent and I do not care what anyone says. In my heart I know it is true,” Walsh said.
Not everyone was happy about their relationship at first, including Ann’s daughter, Cathy McDonald.
“He was an unsavory character,” McDonald said.
McDonald set out to prove to her mother that Hugney was guilty. She got the transcripts from the trial and started reading.
“It was like mountains of circumstantial evidence and that’s why I so believed he was guilty at first,” she said.
However, one of his toughest critics now believes he is innocent.
“If the fire science was wrong, then none of the other stuff matters,” McDonald said. “I was certainly happy to let him rot away in jail when I first heard about it, but I feel bad for him now.”
McShane is confident the photos of the fire will prove his client is innocent.
“I have shown them to up to 14 different national experts and they all agree that there is no proof of arson,” McShane said.
Abc27 asked the Dauphin County district attorney’s office about the case.
“I have not seen any reports from any expert,” first assistant district attorney Fran Chardo said.
Chardo says they get requests for new trials from prisoners every day, especially those serving life sentences. He took a look at the transcripts from Hugney’s trial.
“He admitted that he was at the scene of the crime about the time of the fire, he had bought gasoline that very day and the lab found gasoline or something that was consistent with gasoline at the crime scene, so it seemed like an overwhelming case against him,” Chardo said. “Now that does not mean that they can not present additional evidence, but right now all we have is the opinion of Mr. McShane. We have no evidence of innocence.”
Still, Hugney is holding onto hope.
“You can’t make up for lost time,” he said. “You can only look into the future and try to forget the past and how you were wronged.”
His fiance says she will be waiting for him.
“When he gets out, we are going to the church to thank God and then we get our hug and our kiss,” Walsh said.
A Dauphin County judge has agreed to have a hearing on the case to hear any new evidence. No date has been set.