Legal Daily News Feature
Advances in Science of Fire Investigation Gives New Hope for Some Convicted of Arson By Rebecca E. Neely New advances in the science of fire investigations is not only giving new hope to inmates convicted of arson who’ve maintained their innocence from the start, it’s giving rise to a whole new facet of the legal profession, and spurring new action amongst Innocence Projects around the country.
02/04/12 In much the same way that the study of the evidence of DNA has led to the exoneration of those wrongly convicted, such is the ‘new and improved’ science of fire. Signs once thought to be “telltale” of arson, such as a V-shaped marks on a wall, or the fact that a fire had burned especially hot meant gasoline had been used as an accelerant, are now being dismissed in the face of new science. John Hall, director of analysis and research for the National Fire Protection Association was quoted as saying in the February 1st sci-tech-today.com article, “Arson Science Is New Legal Frontier”: “Our scientific understandings have improved in recent years, and the effect of that has to be to say, ‘We’ve got some innocent people who’ve been declared guilty based on misunderstandings.’” For example, currently, there’s the case of Michael Webb, a man on death row for the 1990 fire that killed his three year old son. In the coming days, he’ll get a chance to make a plea for mercy based on this new science before the Ohio Parole Board. Webb’s primary argument is that the wrong conclusions were reached by a fire investigator about where the fire started in his house, and where Webb was standing – thought to be one and the same. However, Gerald Hurst, a chemist and fire investigator in Austin, Texas, contends that based on experiments conducted throughout the country since 1991, the fire could in fact have started anywhere on the main floor of the home. Hurst submitted a report with these findings on Webb’s behalf in recent weeks. In addition, Webb’s daughter contends she saw a ‘man in red’ the day of the fire in the house. While Webb’s attorneys agree that the new findings don’t prove Webb’s innocence, their hope is that they will generate enough doubt that Webb will receive a new trial.
Another high profile case currently under attack is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted in 1991 for a fire in Texas. His three daughters died in the blaze, and Willingham was executed in 2004. However, since then, some experts have given testimony that the fire was most likely an accident. The main evidence that allegedly proved that Willingham had started the fire, and which is now being refuted, was testimony of arson investigators of pour patterns and puddling on the floor, which they believed proved that accelerant had been poured throughout Willingham’s home. But, per a 2009 report, written by Craig Beyler, chairman of the International Association of Fire Safety Science, he feels that investigators didn’t have enough evidence to prove arson, pointing to findings following the fire. For example, since then, certain tests have demonstrated that pour patterns can sometimes occur due to radiant heat – with no accelerants involved. In addition, other tests show that melted plastics can cause similar looking patterns. It’s an exciting time in both the fields of science and law new opportunities abound, especially for those wrongly convicted. Per information at the organization’s website, the mission of the international nonprofit National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) is to decrease the burden of fire and other hazards on a global basis and improve quality of life by providing and advocating consensus codes and standards, research, training, and education. Founded in 1896, the organization has over 70,000 around the world. The main goal of International Association of Fire Safety Science (IAFSS) is to encourage research into the science of preventing, and lessening the adverse effects of fires, and to provide a forum for the presentation of the result of said research per the organization’s website. The organization has worldwide membership.
The main goal of International Association of Fire Safety Science (IAFSS) is to encourage research into the science of preventing, and lesse...