U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa got both the law and the facts wrong in the widely publicized Pizza Man arson trial, a federal appeals panel ruled Monday.
The panel sent the case back to federal court in Milwaukee for reconsideration.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion was written by Judge Ann Claire Williams; other members of the panel were judges Diane P. Wood and Daniel A. Manion.
Randa sentenced Rahman to 30 months in prison for providing false statements to the government, but allowed him to remain free pending appeal.
The landmark east side Pizza Man restaurant burned down -- along with the Black & White Cafe, Grecian Delight, Cush Lounge and 10 apartment units -- in January 2010.
Rahman was the owner of the Black & White Cafe. The prosecution alleged that Rahman set the fire so he could get out of the cafe business to concentrate on other ventures.
The Appeals Court, in remanding the case, cited numerous errors committed by investigators and Randa.
Investigators exceeded the scope of a consent form Rahman signed that allowed them to search the cafe "to determine the origin and cause of the fire." A subsequent search of the building's basement "violated Rahman's Fourth Amendment rights, and that certain pieces of evidence collected in the basement as a result of the search should have been suppressed," Williams wrote. Rahman never agreed to allow investigators to search the basement, which they already knew was not the site of the fire's origin, for evidence of criminality. That search should have been conducted with a criminal search warrant, the panel said.
"Although the government argues that a lay person could possibly think that the term 'origin and cause' included arson, we do not think it wise to allow the government to benefit from a layperson's misconception of a phrase with legal significance," Williams said.
Investigators failed to determine whether a laptop containing business records Rahman told investigators was in the cafe was the red Gateway laptop with no business records they later found at his home. The government contended finding the laptop at home meant Rahman was lying about there being one at the cafe, but did nothing to determine whether Rahman had a second computer.
"The identity of the laptop to which Rahman was referring could have been cleared up by a single additional question...It was not at all unlikely that Rahman would have more than one computer between work and home, yet the government pinned its case on the laptop in Rahman’s statement being the red Gateway," the appeals panel said.
Finally, the panel said, Randa got the facts wrong when he found Rahman responsible for the fire. "The judge stated that the only way it (a back door) could have been unlocked was with a key, and since only Rahman had a key, that meant only Rahman, or someone at his direction, set the fire," the panel said. Evidence showed, however, that the door could be unlocked from one side without a key.
That error entitles Rahman to resentencing if the case gets that far again, the panel said.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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