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Wrongfully convicted man proves his innocence using an episode of 'MythBusters'

John Galvan was only 18 years old when he was arrested for a crime he did not commit.

mythbusters

Justice (and scientific education) served.

The Discovery show “MythBusters” delighted investigative junkies and movie buffs alike in the years following its launch in the early 2000s. The stunt-filled show featured special effects experts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman testing out the validity of everything from duct tape islands to mechanical sharks using scientific methods.

Back in 2007, 39-year-old John Galvan was 21 years into serving a life sentence for a crime he didn’t commit, when he caught a rerun of “MythBusters” on the prison television.

The episode, “Hollywood on Trial,” which originally aired in 2005, shows Hyneman and Savage failing to light a pool of gasoline using a cigarette—a classic action film trope.


Not even a rolling fully lit cigarette could ignite a flame. In other words, the myth was officially “busted.

This bit of information immediately caught Galvan’s attention, for it would be the very catalyst needed to prove his innocence and reclaim his freedom.

In September 1986, a fire broke out in a two-flat apartment building in southwest Chicago, killing two brothers—one of whom was suspected to be involved in a gang called the Latin Kings. Their siblings managed to escape and told police that a female neighbor had threatened to burn the building down as retaliation for her own brother’s death, an act supposedly committed by the gang.

The woman denied involvement and instead pointed the blame at Galvan, along with other neighbors interviewed by the police. Although Galvan had been asleep at his grandmother’s the night of the fire, he had no other evidence proving his innocence, and was arrested. He was only 18 years old.

Using violence, torture and deception tactics (which remain legal in 46 states), Detective Victor Switski eventually coerced Galvan into signing a confession after threatening that he could face the death penalty and end up “laying next to” his late father.

mythbusters sets man free

A photo of Galvan as a child.

Instagram


Galvan’s signed statement claimed he had started the fire by throwing a bottle filled with gasoline at the building and then tossing a cigarette into the pool of gasoline on the porch to ignite it. Which, again, is scientificallyimpossible.

Galvan immediately called his lawyer Tara Thompson, who had serendipitously been watching the same episode. Thompson and Galvan had been working on his third post-conviction petition, and both were thrilled to have stumbled upon some compelling evidence in the most unlikely of places.

“I remember I was excited, I was extremely happy because that just added to the other things that were coming together at that time. I felt like finally this is starting to all come out,” Galvan recalled.

Thompson added, “It was honestly shocking to me … I feel like all of us have seen movies — like Payback is a famous one — where they light the gasoline in the street with a cigarette and a car explodes, and I really had never given much thought to whether or not that might be real.”

“When I watched this MythBusters episode, as a lawyer, it made me realize that there are things you have to look deeper into — you can’t assume that you understand the science until you’ve looked into it,” she added.
innocence project

Tara Thompson (left) and John Galvan (right).

Instagram

The show’s findings were echoed by experiments conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). It made more than 2,000 attempts to ignite gasoline with a cigarette under various conditions and every attempt failed.

It wouldn’t be until 2017 that Galvan got his evidentiary hearing on his post-conviction claims. Thompson not only presented their findings, but also seven witnesses—including those who attested to also being tortured by the same detective who had interrogated Galvan, and an arson expert who testified that what Galvan falsely confessed to was scientifically impossible.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, prosecutors still denied that the science was correct.

“Even then, they really did not want to accept that this was not possible,” Ms. Thompson recalled. “I find that very telling about the state of science and the law … that these things that we probably should accept as true in the legal space, the system does not always want to accept.”

Galvan would have to wait until 2022—and after several appeals—to gain his freedom. He was exonerated largely based on the fact that he was abused into involuntarily signing his confession, rather than any changes to the science of the case.

Rebecca Brown, director of policy for the Innocence Project, says it speaks to “the critical importance of establishing mechanisms for people to get back into court when science changes or evolves, or when experts repudiate past testimony.”

“A ‘change-in-science’ statute here would have allowed for a presentation reflecting those changes in arson science and could have likely expedited Mr. Galvan’s exoneration,” she explained.

good news

He'll never get those 35 years back, but he's going to make the best of the time he has left.

Instagram

Adjusting to a new life outside the prison walls after 35 years has been no easy task, but Galvan is nonetheless taking his newfound freedom in stride. He’s most looking forward to having his own space to call home and getting back to drawing and painting. If you would like to support Galvan, check out his Amazon wish list.


All images provided by Prudential Emerging Visionaries

Collins after being selected by Prudential Emerging Visionaries

True

A changemaker is anyone who takes creative action to solve an ongoing problem—be it in one’s own community or throughout the world.

And when it comes to creating positive change, enthusiasm and a fresh perspective can hold just as much power as years of experience. That’s why, every year, Prudential Emerging Visionaries celebrates young people for their innovative solutions to financial and societal challenges in their communities.

This national program awards 25 young leaders (ages 14-18) up to $15,000 to devote to their passion projects. Additionally, winners receive a trip to Prudential’s headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, where they receive coaching, skills development, and networking opportunities with mentors to help take their innovative solutions to the next level.

For 18-year-old Sydnie Collins, one of the 2023 winners, this meant being able to take her podcast, “Perfect Timing,” to the next level.

Since 2020, the Maryland-based teen has provided a safe platform that promotes youth positivity by giving young people the space to celebrate their achievements and combat mental health stigmas. The idea came during the height of Covid-19, when Collins recalled social media “becoming a dark space flooded with news,” which greatly affected her own anxiety and depression.

Knowing that she couldn’t be the only one feeling this way, “Perfect Timing” seemed like a valuable way to give back to her community. Over the course of 109 episodes, Collins has interviewed a wide range of guests—from other young influencers to celebrities, from innovators to nonprofit leaders—all to remind Gen Z that “their dreams are tangible.”

That mission statement has since evolved beyond creating inspiring content and has expanded to hosting events and speaking publicly at summits and workshops. One of Collins’ favorite moments so far has been raising $7,000 to take 200 underserved girls to see “The Little Mermaid” on its opening weekend, to “let them know they are enough” and that there’s an “older sister” in their corner.

Of course, as with most new projects, funding for “Perfect Timing” has come entirely out of Collins’ pocket. Thankfully, the funding she earned from being selected as a Prudential Emerging Visionary is going toward upgraded recording equipment, the support of expert producers, and skill-building classes to help her become a better host and public speaker. She’ll even be able to lease an office space that allows for a live audience.

Plus, after meeting with the 24 other Prudential Emerging Visionaries and her Prudential employee coach, who is helping her develop specific action steps to connect with her target audience, Collins has more confidence in a “grander path” for her work.

“I learned that my network could extend to multiple spaces beyond my realm of podcasting and journalism when industry leaders are willing to share their expertise, time, and financial support,” she told Upworthy. “It only takes one person to change, and two people to expand that change.”

Prudential Emerging Visionaries is currently seeking applicants for 2024. Winners may receive up to $15,000 in awards and an all-expenses-paid trip to Prudential’s headquarters with a parent or guardian, as well as ongoing coaching and skills development to grow their projects.

If you or someone you know between the ages of 14 -18 not only displays a bold vision for the future but is taking action to bring that vision to life, click here to learn more. Applications are due by Nov. 2, 2023.
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