BUFFALO, NY- There have been several high profile cases in Western New York over the past few years where innocent people who were wrongfully convicted were set free. Now there's a new state law to give some convicted felons a chance to prove their innocence.
A man who has been in jail for the past 25 years for one of the worst murders in Erie County is now getting his first chance in front of the parole board, and wants to use that new law.
Charlie Mixon is convicted of committing a heinous crime that to this day continues to haunt those familiar with it. The Erie County District Attorney calls it the worst incident of domestic violence in the history of the county. Still, Mixon continues to claim his innocence.
"It has hurt me for 25 years to sit here for something I didn't do," said Mixon during a jailhouse interview at the Collins Correctional Facility.
Reporter: You were convicted of setting the house on fire, killing your ex-wire and two adopted children. If you didn't do it, then what happened that day?
Mixon: I don't have no knowledge of what happened there.
That's exactly what Charlie Mixon told the parole board last month at his very first appearance before it. The judge's words from his sentencing in 1990 echoed in the hearing.
"I want to say that it would be a miscarriage of justice and a travesty of our judicial system if you are ever released from prison and I want to make it clear that it is the intention of this court that you spend all of your remaining days behind bars," said Hon. Penny Wolfgang during Mixon's sentencing.
"I went in there and told them I'm innocent of these crimes and they told me that they don't want to hear that," said Mixon.
In the early morning hours of February 20, 1988, a Scranton Road duplex in Hamburg was torched by gasoline and went up in flames. Mixon's ex-wife Linda, and two adopted children, 13-year-old Eric and 10-year-old Erin were trapped inside.
The image of little Erin is one the case's lead investigator, retired Hamburg Police Captain Daniel Shea, will never forget.
"She was trapped upstairs in that fire and you could see where she was pounding on the window and had her face pressed against the window trying to get out, trying to get air. She had burned the sides of her hands and the tip of her nose as she tried to escape the fire and nobody could come to the rescue," said Capt. Shea.
Three innocent lives were lost and the community immediately sought justice. Within 45 minutes of investigators being on the scene, police said they obtained strong circumstantial evidence, like Mixon's truck parked outside his Bayview Drive home.
"The engine of the truck, they felt it, and it was still warm," Shea recalled.
They also took note of condition of his bathroom.
"Charlie had said he was in bed for quite some time but they looked in the shower and they saw that there was water, fresh water, in the tub and it looked like somebody had just cleaned up," said Shea.
But perhaps the most damning evidence was the eyewitness, Mary Duda.
"I heard the truck door slam and the engine start up and I went to the window and moved the curtains and watched Charlie Mixon pull out," said Duda at trial. She was a resident in the same duplex as Linda Mixon and the children.
"We felt as though we had a lot of good information and we certainly felt that Charlie was our suspect," said Shea.
"I couldn't believe they were arresting me because I knew I had nothing to do with it," said Mixon.
But his motive was clear to police.
"I was a jealous husband. I was angry over the divorce. That's what they tried to picture me as, as a bad person. We had our problems but there was never any physical abuse," said Mixon.
Records show, however, Linda Mixon did file a restraining order against her estranged husband.
"She went in and told them I assaulted her which I did not," he said.
Shea believed what finally set Mixon off was what he found when he snuck into Linda's house the day before the fire.
"There were flowers from a doctor, a friend of hers that had sent her flowers for Valentine's Day. And we believe that he became irate because he had felt as though if Linda was going to be in love with anyone it was going to be him," said Shea.
"I feared for her life after these life threats he made upon her. He told her he was going to do her in, and he did. He killed all three of them, through the fire," said Linda Mixon's father, Walter Esterline, following the murders.
But the jury wasn't as convinced as he was. They were deadlocked. Judge Penny Wolfgang was forced to declare a mistrial. Defense attorney Tom Burton cast doubt in their minds in several ways. He questioned whether Duda, the eyewitness, was reliable.
"She looked through two panes of windows and a screen all in the down position at 3:30 in the morning," said Mixon.
Burton also showed evidence that the couple's teenage son, Eric, was a firebug.
"We know he played with matches and gasoline in the driveway," Mixon said.
But Shea said it was offensive that somebody would even say that Eric could have done it. And by the path of the flames, it was impossible.
Shea said he felt like they had let the victims' family down after the hung jury. The entire case was retried with new jurors they saw things differently. They quickly convicted Mixon of arson and murder in 1990. He was sentenced to 25 years to life behind bars.
"We'll always miss the children. We'll always miss Linda, but we've grieved enough now and we're just happy to put it behind us," said Linda Mixon's father after the sentencing.
As the victim's family tried to move on, this story took another tragic turn which hasn't been spoken about publicly until now. Many associated with Mixon's case believe it was cursed.
Shortly after the conviction, Shea's partner who also worked the case, Hamburg Police Detective Joseph LaRosa developed a brain tumor. The very same night LaRosa passed away, a motorcycle accident left Mixon's first trial attorney, Tom Burton, paralyzed.
Shortly after the motorcycle crash, the case's arson investigator, Bob Ruhlman, had an aneurism in his aorta and nearly died.
At the same time, the case's Prosecutor, Bill Ragan, had a heart attack and died. And Capt. Shea himself needed emergency surgery and nearly lost his own life after some sort of bite.
"The sequence of it all, it just seemed like we were all snake bit. And there were so many things that happened that were so strange in that case," Shea recalled.
While lives were changing on the outside, inside, behind bars, Charlie Mixon admitted he had to find some way to pass the time. He turned to researching his case and learning the law.
"That makes the day go by much faster, being busy all the time," said Mixon.
Mixon is convinced if DNA testing, which wasn't available at time of the fire, is done on blood and fingernails found in the home, he will be exonerated.
"It'll show that I was not in that house. And whoever committed this crime, that physical evidence belongs to that person," he said.
But DA Frank Sedita, III, said he believes Mixon will say and do anything to get out of jail.
Sedita is more than familiar with Mixon's case. The DA's office stores 16 boxes containing the files about his trial and eventual appeals. Sedita said have been 17 appeals to date.
"Mr. Mixon now, by my count, is 0 and 17," said Sedita.
Mixon's motions and appeals were denied by every court in New York State. He was also denied by Federal Court. And he even took tried to take the case to the highest court in the land, the US Supreme Court. Mixon contends they were all wrong.
"Because they're not reviewing, they're not looking at the physical evidence part. That's the heart of this whole case and the jury's never heard that," he said.
Sedita said if there is credible evidence that a citizen has been wrongly convicted, he and his prosecutors take that just as seriously as they do convicting the guilty.
Sedita said one of the reasons his office is denying DNA testing is simply because of the law. CPL 440 provides: "Where the defendant's motion requests the performance of a forensic DNA test on specified evidence, and upon the court's determination that any evidence containing deoxyribonucleic acid ("DNA") was secured in connection with the trial resulting in the judgment, the court shall grant the application for forensic DNA testing of such evidence upon its determination that if a DNA test had been conducted on such evidence, and if the results had been admitted in the trial resulting in the judgment, there exists a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been more favorable to the defendant."
Years ago, however, Federal Magistrate Carol Heckman ruled Mixon's case did not meet the standards of CPL 440 and that there was "no reasonable probability that the defendant would have been acquitted even had counsel been able to show that hair and fingernail scrapings collected from the scene were from someone other than the defendant."
Mixon disagreed with Heckman's findings because he believes she did not review all the records.
Now, a new law signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo which went into effect in October, gives convicted felons who believe they're innocent a greater opportunity to have DNA testing done. Cuomo's office explains in "limited circumstances, defendants will be able to seek discovery of property and other materials to demonstrate their actual innocence."
But Sedita said for the testing to be done under the new law, the case needs to meet a legal standard. And he said Mixon's does not.
"You don't just get it cause you want it, because if that were the case labs and DA's offices would be inundated. We'd be paralyzed," Sedita said.
Mixon said if he is denied again with this last appeal he is filing, he'll probably stop.
"Once it goes through all the proceedings, if I get denied that will be it," Mixon said.
But Mixon went on to say, if Sedita wanted to stop all litigation, he should do the DNA testing.
"The laws are against him. The facts are against him and I certainly am not going to be somehow shamed or extorted into giving him his way. That's not going to happen," Sedita replied. "I feel that I have a sacred obligation to both Mrs. Mixon and the Mixon children. What happened to them is off the charts."
Reporter to Mixon: We've been sitting here for some time now. You've never said that you're sorry the two children and your ex-wife are gone, that you loved them, that you miss them. Why not?
Mixon: I do miss them. I think about them every day.
In fact, the only tears Mixon shed during his hour long interview were for his son, Charlie Jr. Mixon's only biological child with Linda was just 5-years-old at the time of the fire. He was supposed to be with his mother that night, but Charlie kept his son with him.
With his mother dead, and father in prison, Charlie Jr. was raised by relatives and has since moved out of state. Mixon said he would want to be reunited with his son if he were ever to get out of prison.
That will have to wait. After meeting with Mixon last month, the parole board wrote he "showed no remorse or sadness." His release would "so depreciate the seriousness of the offense." His parole was denied. To read the parole board's decision in its entirety, click the link to the left.
"I think that's a good thing for the safety of the citizens of Erie County and Western New York," said Sedita.
"You'd think he'd want to be atoned for his sins. He did something and he continues to want to be free," said Shea. "He shouldn't be free. He had 25 years to life. As far as I'm concerned he shouldn't see the light of day."
Linda Mixon's family couldn't agree more. In an e-mail to Channel 2 News, Linda's sister wrote in part, "Charlie's truth is not actual truth. There is only one body of truth here and until he reckons with that, he will not or cannot be rehabilitated and it is our wish and prayer that he never be released."
Read the full statement below.
Mixon will be eligible for parole once again in 2014.
"If I have to wait for parole to let me out, I'll die in here," Mixon said.
Charlie Mixon is one of nine children. He first reached out to 2 On Your Side's Melissa Holmes through one of his sisters, who is trying to help prove his innocence. Some of Mixon's other siblings feel differently. They told Holmes they have cut off contact with him and believe he is right where he belongs.
Linda Mixon's Family's Statement is as follows:
My thoughts are this: Charlie made a series of terrible choices, ones that landed him right where he is. He made the choice to physically abuse Linda, Eric and Erin from 1984 until their death in Feb. of 1988. In Aug of 1987, she had no choice but to try to escape his terror. We physically went in and moved her out of that house into an apartment. He continued to make bad choices to stalk her, hound her, harass her, threaten her, and terrorize her. She was terrified for her life and that of her children. He further made the choice to drive by her house, spy on her the day prior to the planned event. He had it all planned out in great detail -- or so he thought. He chose to go there in the middle of the night, leaving little 5 year old Charlie alone in his house, chose to beat Linda prior to pouring gasoline up and down the stairs. He chose to light the match that killed three innocent victims. He chose to drive away, being seen by the neighbor who heard the screams for help. He chose to toss the key he had stolen to the house in the field along with the gas can. You see this wasn't just a man with a little anger problem that got out of control. This is a dangerous man whose evil deeds increased over time and escalated to the point of no return. All choices that he made -- all on his own.
These choices started years before he married my sister. He has been setting fires for many years. He was found negligent and responsible for the death of my mother. I wonder why Charlie will not or cannot say what he was doing at Linda's house that night, and if he did not set this fire, why didn't he call for help? Why did he just drive back home. He will not say.
In my opinion, Charlie should have received the death penaty. Because you see the family is never done with this. Had Charlie been sentenced to death, he would not be given this opportunity to speak for himself. He took away the lives of four people who can no longer speak -- and he was only charged with one fire, so he really got away with murder, literally. Now every two years he will be applying for parole. I love our country and the laws that protect the innocent. There are in NYS too many laws protecting the guilty. Taxes are taken from my income to feed, clothe, and house him. This really should not be the case for pre-meditated murder. Why don't you ask him why his parole was denied? I know why but I wonder what he would say.
Charlie's truth is not actual truth. There is only one body of truth here and until he reckons with that, he will not or cannot be rehabilitted and it is our wish and prayer that he never be released. He has told himself all through his life that he is not responsible for his criminal activity. He has always blamed someone else. Blame has been going on since the Garden of Eden. Adam blamed God, Eve blamed the serpent, and so on. I can tell you my hair is blue, but that doesn't make it so. He can convince himself all he wants. He is truly guilty.
-Kathy M. Gray, Sister of the late Linda Mixon, November 2, 2012