Exonerated After 30 years: Daniel Gwynn's Wrongful Conviction in a Philadelphia Arson Case

March 1, 2024 - Reading time: 3 minutes

A Philadelphia man who was convicted and sentenced to death in connection with the 1994 arson murder of a woman is now exonerated 30 years later, the District Attorney's Office announced.

On Wednesday, Daniel Gwynn, 54, was exonerated and released from state prison in Pennsylvania after the DA's office said they found flaws in the 1994 first-degree murder investigation.

"The exoneration of Daniel Gwynn today frees a man who is likely innocent," Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a press release. "Sadly, it also exemplifies an era of inexact and, at times corrupt, policing and prosecution that has broken trust with our communities to this day."

On November 20, 1994, an unhoused woman named Marsha Smith was killed after a fire broke out in a vacant building on the 4500 block of Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia, according to the press release. The DA's office said Smith, Gwynn and three other individuals were squatting in the vacant building at the time of the fire.

A jury trial relied on faulty testimony from two witnesses and a confession from Gwynn, which he recounted and was found inconsistent with how the fire started, according to the release. The DA's office also said Gwynn was never read his Miranda Rights. Information about an alternate suspect -- who was identified by witnesses to police -- was never turned over to Gwynn or presented during his prosecution, which violated his constitutional rights, according to the release.

Daniel Gwynn, center, was exonerated for a 1994 arson murder conviction in Philadelphia, Feb. 28, 2024. WPVI

The DA's office says witnesses identified Gwynn to police as "Rick" from photo arrays used in a separate murder investigation that took place in the same building three days before the fire. The photo arrays in the police files did not include Gwynn's photo and were never turned over to his defense counsel, according to the release.

The witnesses who testified in the first murder investigation were threatened by the defendant before the fire broke out, which the DA's office deemed "critical" information. This information was never disclosed to the defense during Gwynn's prosecution, according to the release.

The defendant in the other case was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, which he is currently serving, the DA's office said. "The wrongful conviction of Daniel Gwynn, and his unjust imprisonment for nearly three decades, is a cautionary tale of tunnel vision in policing and prosecution," David Napiorski, assistant supervisor of Federal Litigation said in the release. "Not only were Mr. Gwynn's rights violated at trial, but his conviction and sentence to death row likely allowed the person actually responsible to escape accountability."

Napiorski apologized to Marsha Smith's family "for the retraumatization they have likely experienced." "They were deprived of justice in 1994 and are deserving of justice now," Napiorski said. During his time in prison, Gwynn used painting as an outlet "to heal and survive" and shared his work via the website, Art For Justice, which exhibits prisoners' artwork.

"Painting has been my therapy, a form of meditation that helps me work through my issues," Gwynn wrote alongside his paintings. Gwynn said art allowed him to not only work on himself but also his legal case. "My transformation came about after I was forced to sit still and take a real hard look at myself," Gwynn wrote. "After I worked through the garbage in my head, I finally woke up and began to work on myself and my case."

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.