John Knapp

Maricopa County, Arizona
Date of Alleged Crime:  November 16, 1973

John Henry Knapp was sentenced to death for allegedly setting a fire that killed his two daughters, Linda Louise, 3 1/2, and Iona Marie, 2 1/2. The fire occurred in the children's bedroom at the Knapp house located at 7435 East Capri in East Mesa, AZ. Shortly before the coroner's inquest, Knapp's wife, Linda, fled to Nebraska. Knapp was told that a fuel can found at the site of the fire had no identifiable children's prints (thus ruling out accident), but did contain numerous adult prints. During his interrogation, Knapp confessed to setting the fire, but recanted within minutes and never wavered in maintaining his innocence.

Within hours of his confession, Knapp asked for and received permission to telephone his wife in Nebraska. Years later, it was revealed that the phone conversation was secretly taped. In the taped conversation, Knapp told his wife that he is innocent, that he confessed only to protect her, and that police supplied him with the necessary details to make his confession. He repeatedly asked her to return to Arizona. She replied that if they want her, they'll “have to come and get me.” There were some reports that Linda was mentally unstable and Knapp feared she would commit suicide if charged with the crime.

Prior to the fire, the utilities to the Knapp house had been shut off and the Knapps used a two-burner, camping style, Coleman stove to cook meals and possibly to provide heat. It was 44 degrees outside at the time of the fire. The Knapps also had a Coleman lantern that used fuel. There were several cans of Coleman fuel in or outside the house, although only one, which was found outside the house, was entirely empty. This can was alleged to have been used to start the fire. There was also evidence of several smaller fires that had occurred in the house, apparently unrelated to the fatal fire. The Knapp daughters had purportedly started some of these fires. At least 10 books of matches were found in the house that were either on the floor or on low items of furniture. However, despite these conditions, the prosecution experts testified at trial that the fire could not have been accidental.

Knapp's first trial ended in a hung jury, but he was convicted at his second trial. At both trials, the prosecution told the jury that the adult prints found on the fuel can were smudged and unidentifiable. In 1990, when the case was transferred to the attorney general's office, the crime lab report of the fuel can was released. It made no mention of smudged prints and stated that none of prints found on the can were Knapp's. The attorney general then ordered that Linda Knapp, who was granted immunity at trial and never called to testify, be fingerprinted for the first time. Her prints matched the prints on the fuel can.

Some of the evidence used to convict Knapp was his purported lack of emotion over the death of his children. However, while he may have avoided displays of obvious sadness, he did express emotion. When a firefighter found Knapp's unharmed tomcat and began to hand him to Knapp, Knapp said, “Throw the damn cat in the garbage – I don't want it. Go back in there and find my kids.” Later when Knapp pushed past a firefighter to enter the children's debris-filled bedroom, the firefighter who wanted to spare him the sight of his dead children said, “They're not in here. Are you sure they're in here?” Knapp replied, “I know they're in here – and if you don't do something, I'll knock your damn head off.”

Besides the fingerprint evidence, the prosecution also withheld from the defense hundreds of exculpatory witness interviews that it recorded and also a reenactment of the fire undertaken by the state. When then video of the reenactment eventually surfaced, it had been taped over and obliterated. New scientific evidence also emerged that the fire could have been set accidentally, perhaps by Knapp's daughters playing with matches. Knapp was retried again in 1991, and despite the new evidence, the jury hung. A year later, Knapp entered a plea in which he did not have to admit guilt in exchange for a time served sentence. He had served thirteen years of imprisonment. A book was written about the case entitled Triple Jeopardy by Roger Parloff (1996).  [2/09]


References:  DPIC, Book Excerpt, The Wrong Men

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Arizona Cases, Arson Murder Cases, Son/Daughter Murder Cases