Circuit Judge Tyler Gill released an order Dec. 28, 2016, explaining and granting a motion to vacate judgment and conviction thus ordering a new trial for Robert Yell. Yell was convicted and sentenced by a jury in 2006 for the death of his two-year-old son Cameron in a trailer fire on Sept. 11, 2004, in Russellville, and for severe burns to his one-year-old daughter Saralynn Nicole.
In 2006, Yell was found guilty of arson first degree (for intentionally setting his home on fire); manslaughter second degree (for the death of his two-year-old son); assault first degree (for the severe burns his one-year-old daughter received), and being a persistent felony offender second degree. He was sentenced to 52 years in prison.
Yell has fought the conviction from its inception claiming his innocence from the beginning. He has said he blacked out during the incident that took his son’s life and burned his daughter over half of her body, but knows himself and that he would never hurt his children.
This is the third motion Yell’s counsel has entered in dispute of his crimes. Almost immediately following the conviction, his attorneys filed an appeal as a matter or right, however, the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed his conviction in 2007. Yell’s council then entered motions in 2011 and 2012, which were denied, claiming council deficiency and false testimony by Commonwealth witnesses. The motion filed in May 2016, which was granted by Circuit Judge Tyler Gill, claims forensic evidence used at the first trial was now known to be unreliable.
According to Gill’s order, the current motion alleges the opinions given by State experts at trial were clearly wrong and not science based. It also argues that the evidence that a canine, trained to detect the presence of accelerates “hit” at various points at the scene has, since the trial, been scientifically proven to be unreliable, has no probative value, and should not have been admitted into evidence at the trial.
Background facts listed in Gill’s order:
In 2004, Robert Yell was living in a mobile home in Russellville with his girlfriend April Carpenter, their two children, Saralynn Yell, 11 months old and Cameron Yell, two years old, and April’s two children from a prior relationship. On Sept. 11, 2004, Robert, April, Saralynn, Cameron and the other two children went to a neighbor’s house for the afternoon. The children played outside with the children of the neighbors, while Robert and April preceded to drink large amounts of alcohol and smoke marijuana.
April and Robert became very intoxicated, and at some point, became belligerent with the neighbor. Robert tried to get April to leave, but she did not want to go home. April and Robert began to argue. Sometime before 5 p.m. Robert, April and the four children went home to their mobile home. According to April, once they got back to the trailer, she and Robert got into an argument. April testified that she and Robert fought frequently because she had recently had an affair with another man when Robert was in jail. The fight escalated and Robert began choking her. When the fight began, April and Robert had lit cigarettes in their mouths. When it ended, neither April nor Robert could account for those cigarettes.
April ultimately left and went back to the neighbor’s house with her two children from a prior relationship, leaving Cameron and Saralynn at the trailer. At some point Robert left the trailer and went to a different neighbor’s home. April arrived at the neighbors house at about 7 p.m. After staying for 20 to 40 minutes, April went back to the mobile home to get her two youngest children. When April began walking back to the mobile home, she realized it was on fire.
Robert Yell reappeared at the scene in a drunken stupor while the fire was still burning and was arrested for disorderly conduct by local City of Russellville police officers. The written complaint reveals that the officers, for reasons not entirely clear, had already formed the opinion that the fire had been intentionally set by Robert Yell.
Kentucky State Police Detective David West, Deputy State Fire Marshall Allen Gregory, Deputy State Fire Marshall Jack Flowers and Firefighter and dog handler Buster Cannon were called to the scene in the days immediately after the fire and worked together on the investigation. No evidence of accelerant was found at the scene, Swabs of Robert Yell’s hands, clothing, and shoes yielded no evidence of accelerants.
The Criminal Complaint dated two days after the fire (Sept. 13, 2004) alleged that the KSP Detective (David West) and a State Fire Marshall (either Jack Flowers or Allen Gregory) had already concluded the fire was intentionally set. This was before laboratory testing of the suspected points of origin revealed lack of any accelerant at the scene or on the shoes and clothing of Robert Yell.
Kentucky State Police Detective David West, Deputy State Fire Marshall Allen Gregory, Deputy State Fire Marshall Jack Flowers and Dog handler Buster Cannon were the state’s expert witnesses at the trial in 2006. West, Gregory and Flowers each testified that the fire was certainly the result of multiple points of origin and therefore intentionally set.
At hearings that followed the third motion by Yell’s attorney’s, two experts in fire investigation, testified as to errors they felt were made in the original determination of the cause of the fire under modern fire investigation methodology.
There is also contention that the use of a canine’s findings of the presence of ignitable liquid without subsequent laboratory confirmation are now unreliable for use in court.
According to Gill’s order, Yell will be transported by the Department of Corrections to the Logan County Detention Center where he shall be held under a $15,000 cash bond pending review of his bond by the court at the next hearing.
Commonwealth Attorney Charles Orange prosecuted Yell in 2006. Commonwealth Attorney Gail Guiling will serve as prosecutor in the new trial, which is yet to be scheduled.
To contact Chris Cooper, email [email protected] or call 270-726-8394.