A man found guilty of setting his Cape Coral home on fire may have his conviction overturned.
A jury convicted Jesus Ventura Perez, 56, of first-degree arson dwelling building people present and burning to defraud insurer in November 2011. He was sentenced to just over three years in prison.
On Friday, Judge Stevan Northcutt of the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal released an opinion reversing Perez's convictions on both charges. Two other appellate judges concurred with Northcutt.
"We agree that the evidence in this case was insufficient to prove that Perez set the fire," he wrote.
The home, at 1818 N.E. 18th Ave., caught fire in June 2009. A local fire investigator documented damage from smoke and soot in various locations, but the kitchen sustained the most damage.
Perez told the State Fire Marshal's Office that he fried eggs and potatoes in the morning, then left to visit a relative. When Perez returned home that afternoon, he found the home filled with smoke.
Perez tried to extinguish the flames with a garden hose, then asked a neighbor to call 911.
" Perez does not challenge the State's proof that the fire was caused by arson. His point is that the State offered no evidence, direct or circumstantial, that Perez was the arsonist," Northcutt wrote.
The only testimony concerning Perez's whereabouts around the time of the fire came from the neighbor, who testified that he had not paid attention to Perez's comings or goings that day. No one took samples from Perez or his clothing, and no proof was offered that the house was locked.
Northcutt noted that the state presented no direct evidence of Perez's guilt.
" If the circumstantial evidence furnishes only a suspicion of guilt, it is insufficient to prove arson," he wrote. "The evidence must be of a conclusive nature leading to a reasonable certainty that the defendant, not anyone else, committed the arson."
" The circumstantial evidence here was woefully insufficient to prove that Perez started the fire," Northcutt added. "His convictions for both arson and burning to defraud an insurer cannot stand."
Attorneys Rene Suarez and Chris Brown are representing Perez.
"We were not surprised. We did expect that it would be overturned based on the interaction of the appellate panel at oral argument," Suarez said. "We got the impression that is would be reversed."
"It seemed pretty clear to us that it should, based on the case law," he added.
Suarez did not believe his client was aware of the opinion as of Friday.
"He's going to be very excited," he said.
Suarez noted that the process has had a huge impact on Perez, the father of a young girl.
"That was the biggest thing when the verdict was read and the jury was let out," he said. "He kept saying, 'My daughter. My daughter.'"
His client has tried to make the best out of his time in prison.
"He's kept himself busy by taking classes. He's trying to keep his mind occupied," Suarez said. "And he's always kept the faith that he would be exonerated."
Clerk of the Court James Birkhold, with the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal, explained that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has 15 days to file a motion for a rehearing over the opinion. If denied, a mandate will be issued to the 20th Judicial Circuit Court, reversing Perez's convictions.
As of Friday afternoon, the Attorney General's Office had not filed any motions.
Perez is currently incarcerated at the Dade Correctional Institution.