Hunter Biden's gun and the power of privilege (2023)

Men convicted of murder exonerated after 'MythBusters' show practical impossibility of prosecution's scenario

Hunter Biden's gun and the power of privilege (1)

John Galvan and his co-defendant Arthur Almendarez
21 June 2022
Image: Ray Abercrombie/Innocence Project

The story

In 1986, a house fire in a Southwest Chicago home killed two brothers, Guadalupe and Julio Martinez. Their siblings, Blanca and Jorge Martinez, escaped with their lives.

Jorge Martinez was believed to be a gang member. Shortly prior to the fateful fire, a female neighbor whose brother had recently been murdered had threatened to burn the Martinez' house down. The reason for that was that she believed that Latin Kings was the gang responsible for her brother's death and that Jorge Martinez belonged to that gang and thus he too was responsible, and by extension his whole family, apparently. So there was plenty of violence, suspicion and hostility to go around - and when the fire happened it was not, at least at first glance, illogical to consider the possibility that the fire was started in an intentional act of violence.

In the final run, the authorities classified this as a murder by way of arson. The arson, according to their theory, was committed by spreading gasoline on the porch of the ill-fated house and tossing a lit cigarette into the gasoline puddle. Three young men: John Galvan, 18, Arthur Almendarez, 20 and Francisco Nanez, 22 were given a life sentence without parole for this crime. At the time, Illinois had death penalty on the books, so the three defendants were fortunate enough to at least be spared that sentence.

Was the case problematic from the start?

In this author's opinion, yes. There was no physical evidence tying Galvan and his friends to the crime. Regarding Galvan, there were witnesses establishing his material alibi by stating that he was asleep at his grandmother's home at the time of the crime. There also were witnesses tying the trio to the crime.

Some of the defendants claimed there was abuse, physical and psychological, by Chicago Police detectives Victor Switski and other officers working on the case. The abuse alleged included officers threatening the young men with death penalty upon conviction, deceptively telling them they would be allowed to go home should they confess, handcuffing them in place for hours, slamming their heads into walls, kicking them, yelling, threatening to leave them in a rival gang's territory to potentially be assaulted, etc. This author can not speak to veracity of these claims but all of these are tactics corrupt and unscrupulous police officers in Chicago and elsewhere have been known to use.

Cases like this one clearly boil down to deciding who to trust. It would be unfair to blame decision makers involved for trusting one set of witnesses over the other. It would also be wrong to view this case as anywhere near clear and bulletproof. If anything it may have been reasonable to dismiss the case due to it not being possible to make a determination that would clear the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard necessary for a criminal conviction.

The revelation

Two decades into his sentence, aged 39, John Galvan found himself watching reruns of Discovery Channel's Mythbusters. What specifically caught John's eye was one seeking the answer to the question of whether or not it was possible to light up a pool of gasoline by tossing a lit up cigarette into it. While many a movie features of scene displaying just that, the Mythbusters crew was not successful at making that happen, multiple attempts on their part notwithstanding. John informed his attorney of that discovery.

In 2007 a team from the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), a US federal agency concerned with law enforcement related to explosives and flammable materials, amongst other things, attempted the same experiments the Mythbusters crew had conducted a few years prior. The ATF experiment ended up proving the same thing: it was not possible to light up a puddle of gasoline by throwing a lit cigarette into it.

Hence two independent series of practical experiments has proven the same thing: the crime the three young Chicago men were serving a life sentence for could not have happened, at least not the way the prosecution would have you believe it did happen.

So the alleged crime could not have happened. Now what?

By 2007 it was clear that the prosecution's scenario was unlikely to the point of it being reasonable to view it as impossible. One would think - at least in a movie - that would mean that one would see the unjustly accused walk out of prison gate free men. But real life is a bit different from movies.

In the real life it took another decade, until 2017, for Galvan and his legal team to get an evidentiary hearing. And at that hearing things did not go Galvan's way, in spite of multiple witnesses testifying to detectives involved in the investigation torturing suspects and a fire sciences expert testifying to the prosecution's scenario being impossible, All the prosecution could offer was that since Galvan was convicted and the scenario he was convicted under was at least marginally possible, even if highly unlikely, the sentence had to be kept in force.

Actual innocence sets one free right away, right? Or does it?

In 2019 John Galvan finally got post-conviction relief - that is, a right to have his sentence reconsidered, in layman's terms. The same happened to his co-defendants at about the same time. Formally, it was mostly due to the court system's acknowledgement of police abuse involved in the investigation. Perhaps a clear admission to the fantastic and fictional nature of the prosecution's scenario proved to be too much of an embarrassment.

But the wheels of justice continued to grind at a maddeningly slow pace. It took until 21 July 2022, over 35 years after there original arrests, for the three men to be exonerated and released.

Will the guilty face the music?

So whose fault was it all? Naturally, the detectives who have been alleged to use torture and other abusive tactics during the investigation need to face the justice. But the same applies to everyone who delayed the proper investigation and remediation of the case once it became clear that the original scenario was highly unlikely at best. In case a crime (and not an accident) caused the fire that initiated the case every day that the authorities covered up for those who, whether due to incompetence or malevolence, concocted the original was the day the crime was not properly investigated and he actual criminals got to escape justice. And regardless of the cause of that fire, every extra day the three men spent locked up was a day a crime was being committed against them - that crime being unlawful imprisonment.

Thus far, not one of those involved has been charged, best I can tell. And this is a clear sign of corruption in society.

The takeaway

Government is power. Government is violence. It is capable of violently kidnapping an innocent citizen under a fantastical pretense. It is even capable of deliberately killing a citizen under a fantastical pretense. For example, Cameron Todd Willingham was a Texas man tried, convicted and prosecuting for allegedly committing an arson that killed his own children - except that, just like in this Chicago case, the scenario under which Cameron was convicted was highly unlikely physically, if not outright impossible. And yes, the government can act in highly corrupt ways when that suits its objectives.

So we need to work on changing the structure of society to keep the government accountable. It is time to scrap qualified immunity and to keep everyone, including government officials, to the same set of rules and regulations.

And, until the the society is reformed, the best default position towards any and all government pronouncements is distrust.


How Discovery Channel’s ‘MythBusters’ Helped a Wrongly Convicted Man Prove His Innocence
Daniele Selby, Innocence Project, 5 October 2022

After 35 Years in Prison John Galvan Proves His Innocence After Watching an Episode of ‘Mythbusters’
mitú Editorial, 18 October 2022

The National Registry of Exonerations

The National Registry of Exonerations

The National Registry of Exonerations

Can A Cigarette Ignite A Puddle Of Gasoline?
John Staughton, ScienceABC, 9 August 2022

Herman Williams, a victim of the justice system
@borepstein , 24 September 2022

Mark Craighead, another victim of the justice system
@borepstein , 11 August 2022

Edward Clayton Taylor, a victim of the justice system
@borepstein , 10 August 2022

Maurice Hastings, a victim of state crime
@borepstein , 2 March 2023

5 Things You Need To Know About The Conviction & Execution Of Cameron Todd Willingham
Investigation Discovery Crimefeed, 14 May 2019

Legal Dictionary

Admissibility of Evidence in Criminal Cases

Capital punishment in Illinois (wiki)

Distrust as the most reasonable default position
@borepstein , 6 February 2022

MythBusters - Youtube playlist


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