A judge Wednesday shot down a request for a new trial by Timothy Nicholls, a Colorado Springs man convicted along with his wife in a 2003 arson plot that resulted in the burning deaths of their three children.
Fourth Judicial District Judge G. David Miller rejected arguments that Nicholls, 43, was poorly served by his defense attorney at a 2007 trial that resulted in first-degree murder convictions in the deaths of 11-year-old Jay, 5-year-old Sophia and 3-year-old Sierra Nicholls.
The judge also tossed a claim that advances in forensic science had raised questions about the methods an expert used to conclude the fires were intentionally set.
Expert findings were central to the prosecution's case at trial that Nicholls and his wife, Deborah, plotted together with designs on killing the children to score an insurance payoff. An insurance company investigator was among those who questioned the couple's statements to investigators about circumstances surrounding the fire.
At the time, the Nicholls were addicted to methamphetamine, awash in debt and at risk of losing their foundering construction company, jurors were told.
Deborah Nicholls, 46, was convicted of murder at a separate trial in 2008, and she is serving her life sentence at the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed in November to review her request for a new trial.
Dennis Hartley, who represented Nicholls at the 2007 trial, offered a flip response to the news that Miller rejected Nicholls' knocks on Hartley's performance in front of the jury as "ineffective assistance of counsel."
"I think he had great representation," Hartley said. "I certainly don't blame him for trying to get out of the joint, but I really didn't think he had a chance."
Denver attorney Randy Canney, who represented Nicholls in the request for a new trial, pledged to appeal and characterized Nicholls as the victim of what he previously called "junk science."
"There have been advances in science, especially related to arson investigations, and there have been a number of wrongful convictions in the arson field over the years," he said, mentioning a Texas man who his advocates say was executed in 2004 before new evidence arose that cast doubt upon his guilt.
"That's an example of when the advances came too late," he said.
Lead prosecutor Jeffrey Lindsey said the ruling was "spot on" and raised questions about the credibility of the defense expert used in combating trial evidence.
"It was very well reasoned opinion," Lindsey said. "The judge spent a lot of time going over both trial testimony and the 35c hearing testimony and reached a favorable decision for our office and the victims."
The planned appeal of Miller's ruling is among dwindling legal avenues still available to Nicholls. An Appeals Court rejected an appeal of his first-degree murder convictions in 2010, and the Colorado Supreme Court later declined to review the case.