11 NEWS EXCLUSIVE: Deborah Nicholls says she did not kill her children in fire, wants new trial

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - It was the fire that rocked a Colorado Springs community nearly 16 years ago.

A home in a quiet neighborhood became the site of a family tragedy after three children died in fire on March 7, 2003 on Undimmed Circle. Their father, Timothy Nicholls, escaped, but 11-year-old Jay, 5-year-old Sophia, and 3-year-old Sierra did not get out. Deborah Nicholls was at work at the time.

Three years later, 11 News was there Tim Nicholls was hauled away, indicted on murder and arson charges. Two years after that, so was Deborah Nicholls. The couple was accused of burning down their home in an attempt to score insurance money, even forcing their children to sit on a couch soaked in accelerant to get it on their clothes, according to one person's testimony.

In the days following the fire, suspicion grew into exactly what happened inside the home on Undimmed Circle.

Timothy Nicholls was sentenced in 2007 on what would have been Sierra's 8th birthday. Deborah Nicholls was found guilty in 2008 on three counts of first-degree murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld that sentence in a 2017 decision.

"I lost everything ... I'm doing the best I can," Deborah told 11 News behind bars.

Lauri Martin: "Did you attend your kids' funeral?"
Deborah Nicholls: "I did not go to the funeral, I went to the gravesite at the cemetery but I couldn't do it."

Lauri Martin: "What do you think that looks like to the public?"
Deborah Nicholls: "I wish people had a little more mercy and compassion than to judge me for that because that's too much. Three little caskets...it's not okay ... too much to ask."

Nicholls told Martin she is now questioning the credibility of the prosecution's lead fire expert in her trial and her husband's trial. She learned, after decades as a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Dr. John Dehaan had stepped down in recent years following an ethics investigation related to another case he worked on.

Deborah claims in court documents Dehaan had used "junk science" in other cases that have since been tossed out. In an eerily similar case, a mother had been accused of killing her kids in a house fire in Louisiana.

Martin reached out to Dehaan by phone, who admitted to changing his testimony in that case at the center of his ethics investigation but stands by his work in the Nicholls case.

"I've re-examined the data over a number of years and I still hold conclusions as expressed in the Tim Nicholls trial as well as the Deb Nicholls that the fire was deliberately started in the living room of the residence," he told Martin.

Dehaan was not the only fire expert to testify in Deborah Nicholls' trial.

"It's not up to Tim and Deb to prove what caused that fire," said John Lentini, the criminal fire expert who testified on Deborah Nicholls' behalf.

Lentini told Martin he has no evidence to believe the fire was intentional.

"What we have learned about the behavior of fire since the Nicholls' fire, is that the patterns we read after a big fire like this are not reliable evidence because everything is controlled by the ventilation. "

Deborah now wants a new trial.

"I want the truth to come out. I want people to know that there was no arson and that house fire and we would never hurt our children," she told 11 News reporter Lauri Martin.

Nicholls says she's innocent.

Lauri Martin: "Did you kill your kids?"
Deborah Nicholls: "No."
Lauri Martin: "Did you have anything to do in the deaths of your kids?"
Deborah Nicholls: "Absolutely not, no." [Shakes head]
Lauri Martin: "Did you set your house on fire to collect insurance money?"
Deborah Nicholls: "No."

She says she doesn't know how the fire started, just that it was not arson.

The courts just recently granted Nicholls the chance to get a new attorney, to possibly get her in front of a judge to see if she could get a new trial. That's what she is waiting on now.

"I would like the chance for the truth to come out so the community knows that we didn't do this. This was an accident," Nicholls said.

The 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office told Martin that appointing an attorney is standard, and it's very preliminary in the process.