CARLISLE — A Carlisle woman imprisoned for more than 40 years in a fatal arson case is about to stand trial again after a judge’s ruling Monday.
Cumberland County Court of Common Pleas Judge Edward Guido on Monday granted the request of Letitia Smallwood to vacate her conviction and hold a new trial in the August 1972 fire that killed two people in Carlisle.
Guido had been hearing the merits of a retrial in the case, and he said in his opinion that the decision was affected by the fact that arson investigations into causes and origins of fire have undergone a “revolution” over the past 20 years. Those in defense of Smallwood during hearings earlier this year said that using current investigation techniques, the fire might have been considered undetermined.
For the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, which has worked with Smallwood to get the appeal through court, it’s a step to allowing Smallwood to leave SCI-Muncy.
“For four decades, she always said she had nothing to do with it. For her, this is a life-changer,” said Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project. She noted that when she called Smallwood to let her know of the opinion, she was sure neighbors “down the street had heard her yelling with joy.”
She noted that the ruling is still “bittersweet” since this will bring up bad memories for the victims’ families. However, she said it’s important to prove Smallwood’s innocence.
Smallwood’s arrest came after an investigation into the arson of the former Strand Theater, which was demolished because of the fire. Witnesses had testified that Smallwood had been jilted by a man who lived in the building. They implied it was her who set the fire that killed Steven Johnson, 26, and Paula Wagner, 23.
Smallwood was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Bluestine said Smallwood will have a bail hearing on Friday. No date is set yet for the retrial.