By Jim Hagerty
NAPERVILLE — A man who served nearly half of a 45-year prison sentence walked out of a suburban Chicago courtroom a free man this week after being acquitted of murder in the 1995 death of his mother-in-law.
William Amor, on Wednesday, was found not guilty by a DuPage County judge. He won a retrial last year when his lawyers presented new evidence in his case.
“This is the end of a nightmare for me,” 62-year-old Amor said in a statement. “I have fought to clear my name for the last 22 years and I am so grateful that I was able to have my day in court for the truth to be heard. I am looking forward to starting the next phase of my life as a free man, no longer labeled as a murderer, for the first time in a long time.”
Amor was sentenced in 1997 for first-degree murder and aggravated arson. The state alleged that on Sept. 10, 1995, he intentionally started a fire in the Naperville apartment he shared with his then 18-year-old wife and her mother, 40-year-old Marianne Miceli, who died of smoke inhalation. He started the fire with a lit cigarette and vodka-soaked newspapers, prosecutors claimed.
At trial, the state based most of its case on a confession Amor gave after 15 hours of questioning. He later said he confessed because he was deprived of food and sleep and wanted the interrogation to be over.
Amor told investigators he started the fire after his wife served him divorce papers. The state alleged that money was also his motivation and that he killed Miceli to collect on an insurance policy.
The Illinois Innocence Project at the University of Illinois took Amor’s case in 2012 after lawyers evaluated his claims that he gave a false confession.
“This case just stood out,” Legal Director Lauren Kaeseberg told Chicago Tonight. “We took a pretty close look at the confession in the case and it kind of had a lot of the hallmarks of a false confession and it looked like something that was really worth digging into.”
Kaeseberg also hired arson investigators who in 2016 testified that it was impossible for the fire to have started the way Amor detailed to police. One expert even opined that Amor wasn’t in the apartment when the blaze started. Another told the court the fire likely started by a smoldering cigarette.
Amor, his wife and mother-in-law all smoked at the time of the fire, Miceli two packs a day.
Circuit Court Judge Liam Brennan vacated the conviction in 2017. Amor was released from prison in May pending the outcome of a retrial.
At his bench trial, the defense called witnesses who testified that the physical evidence did not match Amor’s confession.
“The state’s timeline, along with its theory of the case, is fatally compromised,” the judge said. “Considering the evidence in its entirety, this court cannot determine that the defendant was criminally responsible for the fire and thus Marianne Miceli’s death beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the state has failed to meet its burden, and findings of not guilty shall enter on all counts.”
Prosecutors say they support the verdict yet maintain they presented enough evidence for a conviction.
“While my office stands by our prosecution and we believe the evidence supported a finding of guilty, we certainly respect the court’s decision,” DuPage County State’s Attorney Robert Berlin wrote in a statement. “This was a very complicated case originally based on fire science available at the time. Since that time, more than 20 years later, fire science has improved dramatically and consequently the evidence presented at this trial has changed from that presented in 1995.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, as of November 2017, false confessions were found in 253 of 2,120 exonerations in the United States since 1989. Faulty forensic evidence was found in 509 of those cases. There have been 25 exonerations in Illinois since January 2017. False confessions were found in 17 of them. R.