How an episode of Mythbusters broke a wrongly convicted man out of prison

It is never too late to get justice. Especially if he was wrongfully accused of murder. Such is the case of John Galvan, who was recently released from prison after spending 35 years behind bars for a wrongful conviction.

And the most interesting thing in this case is that an old episode of the popular show “Mythbusters” plays a major role in proving his innocence.

Fifteen years after watching the episode in question, Galvan and his lawyers from the NGO Innocence Project managed to convince the court to overturn the conviction, along with those of two other people who were also found guilty of the same charge .

What is Galvan’s story?

In September 1986, brothers Julio and Guadalupe Martinez died in an apartment fire on the southwest side of Chicago. Those who managed to escape the blaze told authorities they believe the blaze was arson, set by a neighbor who had already threatened to do something similar over the death of her brother.

The neighbor in question was questioned, but she identified 18-year-old John Galvan and two other people. Other neighbors also accuse the three, and John, who was sleeping at his grandmother’s house at the time of the fire, is arrested.

The “Innocence Project” points out that the police did not have any evidence of the detainees’ guilt, but the investigating detective Victor Svitsky extracted confessions from them after beatings, threats and false promises that they would be released.

In their testimony, John Galvan, Artur Almendarez and Francisco Nanez said they started the fire by throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window of the apartment block. John and Arthur later stated that these statements were signed after physical abuse, while the third defendant said he signed them while intoxicated and without being read his rights.

All three were later sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder and aggravated arson.

More than 20 years later, “Myth Hunters” intervenes – the television show in which a team of specialist-experimenters checks the truth of various myths, urban legends or fictions presented as truths.

In 2007, Galvan watched a rerun of an episode that dealt with breaking stereotypes from popular Hollywood films. There, the team answers the question of whether it is possible to ignite a puddle of gasoline with a cigarette. After several desperate attempts to start a fire with a cigarette (even throwing it in gasoline), the “Myth Hunters” come to the conclusion that this is a myth.

This is exactly what is decisive for Galvan, since in his testimony it is written that this is how he started the fire in the apartment building, after throwing the Molotov cocktail.

For 21 years until that moment, he had tried to explain that he was innocent, even found other victims of the actions of detective Svitsky, but now he already had a clear argument in his favor.

“I remember being excited, I was extremely happy, because this was the end of everything I was collecting at the time. I felt that everything was finally going to come out,” says Galvan.

He immediately contacted his lawyer, Tara Thompson, who, coincidentally, had also seen the episode.

“We’ve all seen it in the movies. ‘Payback’ is one — where Mel Gibson lit a puddle of gasoline with his cigarette and blew up a car. I hadn’t thought about whether that could be real or not,” says Thompson. “When I watched the episode of Mythbusters, as a lawyer it made me realize that there are things we need to look deeper into – you can’t assume you understand the science until you’ve really looked into it .”

It turns out that back in 2007, a team from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) researched the exact same thing and made 2,000 attempts to start a gasoline fire using a cigarette lighter, even spraying gasoline on a lit a cigarette.

Not once did the cigarette ignite.

“Despite what you see in action movies, dropping a lit cigarette on a trail of gasoline will not ignite it, assuming there are normal oxygen levels and no unusual circumstances,” the bureau explained at the time.

Still, it would be another 10 years before Galvan would get a chance at a new hearing, and only then would Thompson and the rest of the legal team present their evidence to the commission, several experts, as well as seven other witnesses who had experienced police abuse by Detective Svitsky.

As a result, Galván, Almendarez and Nanez are back on trial, but under completely different circumstances. At the end of summer this year, all three were finally acquitted after spending a total of 105 years in prison.

Now they face a new challenge – adapting to life in freedom.

Despite the happiness that they are no longer behind bars, the three have to adjust to the changes of the last decades, during which the world moves at a fast pace, and they did not have a chance for education and career.

“It’s hard, I don’t feel out of place. I have a lot to learn and I don’t know where I should be and what to do,” says Galvan.


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