The road to a conviction of Caleb Lacey for the Lawrence arson fire that killed four people became significantly bumpier Tuesday with a judge's decision to ban a detective from testifying that Lacey confessed, legal experts said Tuesday.
Nassau County Court Judge Jerald Carter's decision found that Det. Carl Re could not testify about the statements Lacey made because, a videotape showed, the detective had continued to question Lacey after the suspect invoked the Fifth Amendment.
The latest blow to the prosecution follows Nassau County Court Judge Jerald Carter's earlier refusal to let prosecutors play the tape for jurors because of its unclear sound quality.
Still, prosecutors have presented circumstantial evidence - a surveillance video showing Lacey's car near the scene of the Lawrence fire and gasoline found in the lining of his pants - that could convince jurors he's guilty.
Without jurors hearing the detective's testimony or seeing the videotaped confession, prosecutors must now convince the jury that the circumstantial evidence points to a conviction.
"Circumstantial evidence can be sufficient," said Gary Shaw, a constitutional law professor a the Touro Law School in Central Islip. "But the jury has to be able to draw reasonable inferences about the circumstantial evidence. If you have a videotaped confession, that's a piece of cake."
Shaw said prosecutors must now rely on individual pieces of evidence showing Lacey had the opportunity and the motive to set the fire that took the lives of a woman and three of her children, Shaw said.
Barbara Barron, a former Manhattan prosecutor who is co-director of the trial techniques program at the Hofstra University School of Law, said the loss of the confession and the detective's testimony does not necessarily spell disaster for the prosecution's case.
Barron said in the absence of the confession, prosecutors can use circumstantial evidence to help jurors connect the dots.
"You have his car, you have the gas," Barron said. "If you connect everything, you have a credible case. A lot of times, circumstantial evidence is far stronger than an eyewitness account."