18 years later, Innocence Clinic seeks new trial for mom in teen’s death

Target 8

ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) — Moments before she was sentenced to prison in 2003 for setting the fire that killed her daughter, Karen Boes addressed the judge.

It was not a plea for mercy. That was not an option. In cases of first-degree, premeditated murder, life without parole is the only option.

“I’m going to be going to prison for the rest of my life for something that I never even would have thought of doing,” Boes, then 46, told the Ottawa County judge. “But there is another day of judgment that each one of us will face for the good and bad that we have done.

“Before almighty God, I shall not stand accountable for this crime that I have been convicted of.”

Now, the University of Michigan Law School’s Michigan Innocence Clinic is convinced Boes, 65, was wrongfully convicted 18 years ago. It is filing a motion Monday with Ottawa County Circuit Court to overturn the verdict and order a new trial.

It was an awful crime, as described by authorities. In July 2002 at their home in Zeeland, investigators said, Boes used gasoline to set a fire in her daughter Robin’s bedroom, killing the 14-year-old girl, then left to go shopping for shoes.

An undated courtesy photo of Robin Boes.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic has helped set free more than two dozen wrongfully convicted prisoners. Its director, David Moran, is convinced that should happen here, too.

“No reasonable jury today would convict Karen Boes if they saw all the evidence,” Moran said.

Even one of the original jurors told Target 8 he understands the request for a new trial, though he stands by the original verdict.

“If they can prove without a shadow of a doubt that they can prove her innocent, then let her be proved innocent,” Todd Gregg said. “If it takes a new trial, new jurors, I totally agree.”

The Innocence Clinic argues prosecutors convicted Boes with a false confession and arson science that is no longer valid.

“It’s not surprising to me at all that people who sat through the trial, including jurors, concluded she was guilty and that’s the point of this motion,” Moran said. “We’re 18 years later and we know a lot more now.”

When told that a close relative of Boes, a man who sat through the entire trial, has no doubt she is guilty, Moran said, “Well, it’s not surprising.”

The defense argued the daughter somehow set the fire in her bedroom, where investigators found matches, traces of gasoline and a gas can.

Prosecutors countered with arson investigators who said the fire started in the hallway just outside the partially closed bedroom door, which means the girl couldn’t have started it.

“My conclusion was that the fire was actually ignited in the hallway, burned there for some seconds before the vapors in the bedroom were ignited,” prosecution arson expert John DeHaan testified in the trial.

That helped sway the jury.

“When you have professionals come in that are classified as professionals and they do what they’re supposed to do and they follow the handbooks, it’s hard to fight stuff that is put in front of you that is a proven fact,” juror Todd Gregg recently told Target 8.

But, the Innocence Clinic said, fire science has since changed.

“The way that the fire investigators for the prosecution claimed that the evidence proved that Karen had set the fire outside the daughter’s bedroom in the hallway is no longer sustainable under what we now know how to do fire investigations,” Moran said.

In the early 2000s, investigators said the burn pattern where the fire burned deepest into the floor — proved it started just outside the bedroom door. The Innocence Clinic said experts have since debunked that science.
The original investigators concluded Boes must have splashed gasoline outside the door only after they had eliminated other possibilities. No traces of gas were found there.

“There had to be something else added there, and in my experience that would be an ignitable liquid,” ATF agent Michael Marquardt testified during the trial.

But using such a process of elimination, the Innocence Clinic attorney said, is no longer scientifically acceptable.

Also, he said, one of the prosecution arson witnesses, DeHaan, “has subsequently been discredited by the major forensic fire organization for tailoring his opinions to fit whatever the prosecution wants.”

Boes was an alcoholic who told people she hated her daughter and that she wished she were dead.

“I do remember them, yeah, back and forth, just yelling, when they yelled at each other, ‘I hate you,’ ‘I hate you, too,’ kind of deal,” Boes’s son, Billy Boes, testified during the trial.

But, Moran said: “The evidence of friction between a mother and a teen-aged daughter is not evidence of murder.”

Boes repeatedly denied killing her daughter or knowing how the fire started until hours into a video-taped interrogation after police told her a perfectly legal lie.

“They claimed that her fingerprints were found on the gas can in Robin’s room, which was a lie,” Moran said.

Karen Boes in court in 2003. (File)

An interrogator also asked her: “If you did dream about this, how would it happen?”

“We’re assuming that I probably spread gas in her bedroom and down the hallway and into our bedroom,” Boes told an interrogator.

“The facts are right there, Wayne,” she said, apparently speaking to her husband. “They have all kinds of evidence. I did it. OK? I killed our daughter and I didn’t do it in my right mind.”

“Are you sure of that?” she was asked.

“No. But it’s there. I’m just going to take the rap.”

Moran said that’s one way to plant a false confession.

“One of the leading ways that happens is exactly what we saw in the Boes case, which is the internalized false confession where they get the person to accept they must have done it, even if they didn’t remember it,” Moran said.

Then prosecutor Jon Hulsing jumped on the confession in court. Now a judge, Hulsing told Target 8 he welcomes any review of the case but stands by his earlier statements, that the evidence was there.

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