How A MythBusters Episode Helped Exonerate Three Men Serving Life Sentences

The television series "MythBusters" sought to either prove or dispel common myths by performing complex — and often entertaining — scientific experiments. Although viewers were, at times, disappointed to see some of their favorite myths and legends "busted," the results of one experiment helped prove three men were wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder.

In the early morning hours of September 21, 1986, a catastrophic fire broke out in an apartment in Chicago, Illinois. As reported by the University of Michigan, the apartment was occupied by 33-year-old Blanca Martinez and her siblings, 28-year-old Guadalupe, 22-year-old Jorge, and 19-year-old Julio. Although Blanca and Jorge managed to escape, Guadalupe and Julio were killed in the devastating blaze. Amid their investigation into the fire and subsequent deaths, authorities interviewed Socorro Flores, whose home was across the alley from the Martinez's apartment. Flores said she was preparing a lunch for her husband to take to work when she heard some noises in the alley. When she looked out the window, Flores said she saw several young men standing in the alley near the Martinez's apartment.

A neighbor saw several people outside the apartment before the fire started

As reported by the University of Michigan, Socorro Flores said one of the young men had what appeared to be a towel in his hand. She also saw one of the young men throw something through one of the apartment windows. Shortly after she heard the window break, Flores said she saw a small fire inside the apartment. Flores later identified one of the people in the alley as Frank Partida.

Authorities also interviewed Blanca Martinez, who said a woman named Lisa Velez had recently threatened to set fire to the apartment where her and her siblings lived. According to Blanca, Velez believed her brother, Mario, was murdered by members of the Latin Kings street gang — which included Blanca's brother Jorge. Velez reportedly threatened to set the fire in revenge for her brother's death. According to the University of Michigan, law enforcement officials interviewed Velez, who denied any involvement in the fire. She was ultimately released without any charges.

Three men were convicted of arson and murder in connection with the fire

Law enforcement officials also interviewed Frank Partida, who Socorro Flores saw in the alley on the night of the fire. As reported by the University of Michigan, Partida said he was talking to some friends in the alley when he saw three young men walking toward the Martinez's apartment. One of the young men was later identified as 18-year-old John Galvan.

Amid their investigation, authorities interviewed multiple people who claimed they had knowledge about the fire and who was involved. Although many of the witnesses told conflicting stories, law enforcement officials ultimately identified 22-year-old Francisco Nanez, 20-year-old Arthur Almendarez, and 18-year-old John Galvan as the primary suspects in the arson and subsequent deaths of Guadalupe and Julio Martinez. The University of Michigan reports all three were arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder and aggravated arson.

Almendarez, Galvan, and Nanez were all ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated arson. They were all sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The three men claimed their confessions were coerced

During police questioning, John Galvan had confessed that he, Arthur Almendarez, and Francisco Nanez purchased gasoline, which Galvan used to make a Molotov cocktail. As reported by the University of Michigan, Galvan said he threw the Molotov cocktail against the outside wall of the Martinez's apartment. However, instead of igniting, the bottle broke, splashing gasoline on the side of the house and the ground. Galvan said the fire started when he threw a lit cigarette into the gasoline.

During his trial, Galvan claimed his confession was coerced. According to Galvan, one of the officers who interrogated him struck him in the head repeatedly until he confessed to setting the deadly fire. Almendarez and Nanez also claimed they were abused during their interrogations and were essentially forced to confess to a crime they did not commit. The University of Michigan reports all three men appealed their convictions. However, their appeals were ultimately denied.

An episode of MythBusters caught the attention of one of the convicted men

Arthur Almendarez, John Galvan, and Francisco Nanez maintained their innocence and insisted they only confessed to the heinous crime because they were under duress. However, as reported by the Innocence Project, it was an episode of "MythBusters" that inspired a closer examination of the facts of the case. In the episode titled "Hollywood on Trial," hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage reproduced scenes from television programs and films to determine whether they were actually possible. One of the experiments they conducted was to determine whether a lit cigarette thrown into spilled gasoline would ignite a fire.

The Innocence Project reports the "MythBusters" hosts ultimately proved it would be impossible to ignite a pool of gasoline with a lit cigarette. Galvan, who watched a rerun of the episode in prison, realized he might be able to prove his confession was coerced because the scenario he presented was physically impossible. In the years after the "MythBusters" episode originally aired, the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives conducted its own experiment using a lit cigarette and a pool of gasoline. According to the Innocence Project, they attempted the experiment more than 2,000 times before concluding a lit cigarette will not ignite a pool or trail of gasoline.

All three men had their convictions overturned and were released

After viewing the "MythBusters" episode, IFLScience reports John Galvan contacted his attorney to discuss the episode. Coincidentally, his attorney had also seen the rerun and thought Galvan might be able to use the information to file another appeal. In 2017, Galvan was granted a hearing to determine whether there was enough evidence to possibly overturn his conviction (via the Innocence Project). In addition to producing evidence that the scenario presented in Galvan's confession was physically impossible, multiple witnesses testified that Galvan was asleep at his grandmother's home when the fire started.

As reported by the Innocence Project, seven witnesses also testified that they were physically abused by the same officers who reportedly tortured Galvan during his interrogation. Galvan's legal team also presented evidence that the officers fabricated evidence to obtain probable cause for an arrest warrant. By 2022, Arthur Almendarez, John Galvan, and Francisco Nanez's convictions were overturned, and all three were granted new trials. However, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office ultimately decided to dismiss the charges against all three men.