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Louis dinicola

Louis DiNicola

Real Name: Louis Paul DiNicola
Case: Appeal
Location: Erie, Pennsylvania
Date: August 31, 1979


Details: Louis DiNicola was convicted of setting a fire that killed three people, but he maintains his innocence. On the night of August 30, 1979, he and his friend, Michael Jefferson, left their jobs at a roofing company and walked to the Erie, Pennsylvania, apartment of Deborah Sweet, a single mother with two children: eight-year-old Alissa Nadine Minton and four-year-old David Geoffrey Sweet. Michael lived in an upstairs apartment with his mother, Cora, and her forty-two-year-old fiancé, Francis Eugene Pitts Jr.
After Deborah put the children to bed, she drank beer and smoked marijuana with Louis and Michael. She and Louis had never met before that night. She and Michael later went to her bedroom, where they had sex and then went to sleep. Louis went to sleep on the living room sofa.
According to Louis, sometime after midnight, he was awakened by fire and heavy smoke that seemed to be coming from the stereo system. He yelled for Michael and Deborah to get out, then went upstairs and helped Cora escape. Unfortunately, Francis was unable to escape and died of smoke inhalation in the stairwell. The heavy smoke and flames prevented anyone from getting to the children’s bedroom. Sadly, both David and Alissa died of smoke inhalation.
State police investigators found heavy “alligator charring” on the floor of the den, which was next to the living room and children’s bedroom. Based on the burn pattern, they determined that a flammable liquid had been applied to the floors of the den and living room. When debris from the apartment was analyzed by chemists, they discovered a fluid known as “Stoddard solvent.” This type of product was regularly used at the company where Louis worked.
When detectives questioned Louis a few days after the fire, he made the remark, “You know, arson is tough to prove, and in the back of your mind you might know who did it, but you can't prove it.” They thought that was strange, since they had not mentioned arson to him at that point. They noted that he also seemed unusually interested in fires. Michael confirmed this, saying that Louis had once burned his own barn down.
When Deborah was initially questioned at the hospital, she said she had not heard anything out of the ordinary that night. However, after being hypnotized, she said that she heard Louis leave the apartment and then return later. Sometime afterwards, the fire broke out. When she ran to the kitchen, she saw him standing in the doorway, staring at the fire. She also said that he had made a “pass” at her that evening, which she rebuffed.
The police ruled out electrical malfunction and a gas leak as possible causes of the fire. Based on this evidence, they believed Louis intentionally set the fire because Deborah chose to have sex with Michael instead of him. On March 26, 1980, Louis was arrested and charged with arson and three counts of murder.
At Louis’ trial, Deborah testified to a version of events similar to her post-hypnosis interview. The defense was not told about her previous hospital interview. At the trial, they argued that the prosecution implied that the Stoddard solvent could only be acquired at Louis’ worksite. In fact, it was available at several places in Erie. His boss also said that he did not notice any of the solvent missing.
On October 20, 1980, Louis was convicted of arson and three counts of second-degree murder. On February 27, 1981, he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms in prison. In 1982, he appealed his conviction, but it was upheld by the state Superior Court.
In December 1983, following another appeal, Louis’s conviction was reversed. The court determined that the jury had improperly heard testimony regarding an interrogation of him in which he asked the prosecutor what he thought about the case; according to a detective, the prosecutor replied, “I think you did it.” The court found that the evidence was “improper opinion testimony” and ordered a new trial.
In February 1984, Louis was released on bond while awaiting retrial. Around that time, his lawyers obtained a tape recording of Deborah’s initial interview. In a pre-trial appeal, they asked that the case be dismissed on double jeopardy grounds. They also asked to have Deborah’s post-hypnosis testimony excluded. The judge denied the case’s dismissal but agreed to exclude Deborah’s later testimony.
The appeals caused the retrial to be delayed for several years. During this time, David and Alissa’s bodies were exhumed for a second autopsy. The medical examiner discovered what he believed were cut marks on their necks. He believed the cuts were made with a banana knife, a tool that roofers (such as Louis) were known to use. Despite this, Louis maintained his innocence.
Extra Notes:

  • This case first aired on the January 6, 1995 episode, which focused on Dr. Cyril Wecht.
  • Interestingly, serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards testified at Louis’ retrial, saying that Louis had confessed to setting the fire.
  • Some sources state that Francis was forty-three and that David’s first name was Geoffrey.

Results: Solved - Louis’ brother, Ron, became a lawyer and began working on his case. In 1994, he contacted John Lentini, one of the nation’s foremost experts on arson science, and asked him to review the case. In May 1994, the retrial finally began. The medical examiner who conducted the second autopsy testified for the prosecution about the cut marks on the children’s bodies.
A renowned forensic pathologist, Dr. Cyril Wecht, was hired by the defense. He contradicted the other medical examiner’s testimony, saying that the marks (which were not observed during the first autopsy) most likely occurred either during the first autopsy or during embalming. Lentini testified that the fire originated in the living room. He said that, although the exact cause of the fire could not be determined by the physical evidence, there was no evidence contradicting Louis’s account.
Lentini also determined that the original investigators misinterpreted the “alligator charring” on the floor of the den. He said that the charring resulted from radiation and not the application of flammable liquids.
On May 23, 1994, after a two-week trial, Louis was acquitted of all charges. In 1998, he settled a federal civil rights lawsuit with the city of Erie for $22,000.