Discovery Show ‘MythBusters’ Helped To Exonerate Innocent Men Convicted Of Murder
From watching an episode of the show, John Galvan learned that the arson science used to send him and two others to prison was faulty, and a judge ruled his confession was coerced.
The Discovery show MythBusters was partially responsible for helping three men wrongfully convicted of murder get their freedom back after spending decades behind bars.
“I remember I was excited; I was extremely happy because that just added to the other things that were coming together at that time,” John Galvan recalled in an interview with Innocence Project about seeing the eye-opening episode in 2007. “I felt like finally this is starting to all come out.”
On Sept. 21, 1986, a fire tore through a two-unit apartment building in Chicago, killing two brothers, Guadalupe and Julio Martinez. The victims’ sister, Blanca, and brother, Jorge, managed to escape the burning building. Police suspected the fire was the result of arson.
According to the Innocence Project, Blanca told investigators that prior to the blaze, a female neighbor allegedly threatened to burn down the building in retaliation for the death of her brother, who was murdered by the Latin Kings, a street gang the neighbor believed Jorge was part of.
When detectives spoke with the neighbor, however, she denied the allegations and instead fingered Galvan for the crime. Other neighbors in the area also pointed police in the direction of Galvan as well as Arthur Almendarez and Francisco Nanez. One witness claimed Almendarez and Nanez threw gasoline on the apartment’s porch and then lit it using a cigarette.
According to the Innocence Project, Galvan had an alibi the evening the fire broke out — he was asleep at his grandmother’s home — and detectives had no further evidence to prove he had anything to do with the blaze.
Detective Victor Switski led the interrogation. Switski “handcuffed Mr. Galvan to a wall and proceeded to interrogate and intimidate him for hours, pressuring the 18-year-old to implicate others in the crime in order for him to return home,” the Innocence Project writes about the case. “Deceptive tactics — like offering leniency in exchange for a confession or falsely telling children they can go home if they confess — have been identified as risk factors for false confessions, and young people are especially vulnerable to falsely confessing as a result of these tactics.”
The three men were arrested nine months after the deadly fire.
At their trials, Galvan, Almendarez, and Nanez were each convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated arson and received sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Galvan always maintained he was innocent of the charges and insisted detectives Switski and other investigators coerced him into signing a false confession.
In 2007, Galvan, who had been incarcerated for around 21 years at that point, happened to catch a rerun of the Discovery show MythBusters on a prison television. What he learned while watching would change the course of his life.
Originally aired in 2005, the episode, “Hollywood on Trial,” follows hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage as they attempt to use a lit cigarette to ignite gasoline, a plot device often used in films.
Despite their best efforts, Hyneman and Savage found they were unable to ignite gasoline with a burning cigarette.
“There it was,” Galvan, who was in the process of filing a third post-conviction petition after learning Detective Switzski had abused others, told the Innocence Project about his thoughts while watching the show. “Once I saw it, I couldn’t wait to tell [my lawyer, Tara Thompson].”
By complete chance, Thompson also watched the exact same episode. “It was honestly shocking to me … I feel like all of us have seen movies — like Payback is a famous one — where they light the gasoline in the street with a cigarette and a car explodes, and I really had never given much thought to whether or not that might be real,” she said. “When I watched this MythBusters episode, as a lawyer, it made me realize that there are things you have to look deeper into — you can’t assume that you understand the science until you’ve looked into it.”
Thompson began digging deeper into arson science as it related to Galvan’s case. That same year, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives conducted experiments that proved a lit cigarette did not burn hot enough to light gasoline on fire.
“Despite what you see in action movies, dropping a lit cigarette on to a trail of gasoline won’t ignite it, assuming normal oxygen levels and no unusual circumstances,” explained the then chief of the ATF fire research laboratory, Richard Tontarski, The Scotsman reported.
Ten years later, in 2017, Galvan was granted an evidentiary hearing. Multiple alibi witnesses testified on his behalf, and seven witnesses attested they too suffered torture at the hands of the same detectives who coerced Galvan to confess to the deadly arson fire, according to the Innocence Project.
“Even then, they really did not want to accept that this was not possible,” Thompson noted. “I feel like that is the battle that we’re still fighting about science [in the courtroom]. Even though this is not really a disputed issue in arson science anymore, the prosecutor really wanted there to be a possibility that this could happen.”
In 2019, Galvan was granted post-conviction relief on the grounds that he was innocent and suffered abuse that resulted in a coerced false confession.
Galvan, Almendarez, and Nanez were all granted new trials but following further appeals, three years later, in July 2022, the trio’s convictions were all vacated. They were released from the Cook County jail after an appellate judge determined there was no evidence in the cases beyond Galvan’s faulty confession.
Cook County prosecutors chose not to pursue new trials, and the three were exonerated.
“At 18, 20, and 22, the lives of these three men were just beginning when their freedom was stolen,” Thompson said of Galvan, Almendarez and Nanez. “They have shown such determination and strength over the last three and a half decades.”
“This case is representative of the many wrongful convictions stemming from the pervasive misconduct by Chicago law enforcement, as well as invalidated forensic techniques,” Thompson continued, adding, “We have to address these recurring issues if we are to have truly fair and equitable systems of justice in this country.”
“Serving a life sentence without parole for a crime you didn’t commit is not easy,” Almendarez said of his time in prison, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “I’ve tried not to let the anger poison my soul. But I have been so mad.”