Firefighter acquitted of arson; defense contends case built on racial animus

Illustration by Abigail Blachman / Injustice Watch

The charge was odd: A South Suburban firefighter accused of arson.

The defense was striking: The charges were false, brought by a fire marshal who had made racist comments in the past directed toward the firefighter, Samuel Wilson, who is Black.

On Thursday, Cook County Circuit Judge Carl B. Boyd found Wilson not guilty, ending a non-jury trial that had been held sporadically since opening arguments in December.

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After the trial had ended, Wilson’s lawyer, Daniel Franks, contended that authorities had built a false case against his client from start to finish. Authorities did not charge Wilson for 16 months after the incident, Franks told Injustice Watch, adding that they “presented false evidence to the grand jury. It took a trial to prove that Sam was innocent.”

Wilson had approached a Sauk Village police officer on Oct. 24, 2015 to report a vandal had just fled the bar he owned, according to testimony.  After the two gave chase unsuccessfully, Sauk Village Police Officer Andrew Vaughn said, Vaughn followed Wilson back to the bar, where the officer saw Wilson putting out the small fire in the windowsill.

Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Naheda Zayyad-Hussein contended that Wilson, who was behind in rent payments for Level’s Sports Bar and had trouble buying liquor through the state distributor, had set the fire to collect insurance money.  But defense attorney Franks contended that Wilson was at the scene to protect his bar, which according to testimony had been previously vandalized.

Wilson refused a last-minute plea deal in December to a misdemeanor, as any criminal record would result in Wilson’s losing his license to be a firefighter, Franks said.

Illinois State Fire Marshal Kevin Smith, who was assigned the case, said he went more than once to the fire station in Country Club Hills where Wilson worked. During the trial, Franks questioned Smith closely about a conversation he had at the station after the firefighters had just completed a job involving CPR.

Smith contended he could only recall saying “nobody was going to put their lips on me.” Pressed, Smith said he could not recall whether he uttered a phrase that the defense contends he said:  Wilson could never put his “big Black lips” on Smith’s face or Smith would put .45 air vents into Wilson’s body.

Smith said he has never owned a .45 caliber pistol and would never joke about using it on someone for such a reason.

Smith testified that he wrote in a report he submitted within two weeks of the fire that its cause was arson and checked a box on the report that the motive was “profit.”

Protective gear, not a disguise

Sauk Village officer Vaughn testified that while he was on patrol, he had seen a man near the bar wearing what appeared to be a mask before Wilson approached his squad car.

When Vaughn turned the corner, Wilson then approached him, wearing no mask, Vaughn testified. Vaughn observed a small fire and broken glass in the bar’s window. Before the two ran in the direction Wilson pointed, Vaughn said he also observed a what he called a mask laying on the ground.

Franks produced a protective piece of fire gear that is part of Wilson’s uniform and asked Vaughn whether that was what he called a “mask.” Vaughn agreed the hood, which did not obstruct Wilson’s eyes or face, appeared the same as the one he observed at the scene.

Vaughn testified after he observed the fire he called for backup, and other officials including Smith arrived. Wilson allowed officials to search his car and let them into the bar, according to Vaughn’s police report.

Smith testified he was the only fire marshal on duty when he arrived at the scene. He said that he did not recognize Wilson when he initially saw him at the scene of the fire, but remembered him soon after.

Robyn Green, a former bar employee, testified she recalled previous vandalism of a sign over the bar. In addition, Franks sought to introduce evidence that three other individuals admitted vandalizing the bar prior to the fire, though Judge Boyd refused to permit the questioning.

In his comments to Injustice Watch, Franks said, “The case highlights the power and authority of the state’s attorney’s office.” He called it “imperative” that officials’ “decisions be monitored and challenged so that such a flawed judgement does not cause an even greater injustice.”