We hear it after a smoky blaze that destroys a house, or an all- night warehouse inferno: The cause of the fire is under investigation. Now those investigations themselves are getting a hard look, including the case of a Texas man executed in 2004 for a house fire that killed his three little girls. Fire experts say he was wrongfully convicted because junk science was accepted as expert testimony.
The implications go far beyond Texas. More than 5,000 people are imprisoned nationwide for arson, and at least some are likely to have been wrongfully convicted, said experts who analyzed testimony in the Texas case.
“It’s an unspeakable error, and people don’t want to admit they made that error,” said John Lentini, one of the arson experts. “It means you might’ve sent someone to prison based on bad science. It means you might’ve caused a family to lose their life savings, based on bad science.”
Lentini and his colleagues concluded bad science was at the heart of the case that led to Cameron Todd Willingham’s conviction for a 1991 fire in Corsicana, Texas. Willingham maintained his innocence up to his execution in 2004.
The expert panel, along with The Innocence Project, a New York- based group that seeks to uncover wrongful convictions, presented their study Tuesday to a special Texas commission set up to examine forensic misconduct.
The problems with arson convictions could be huge. The Innocence Project commissioned the panel to study Willingham’s case, but said its network has already begun to review other convictions around the country.
“It’s really hard to get a number of how many people have been falsely accused, falsely convicted, falsely excluded from insurance payment,” Lentini said.
Willingham’s case stands out because he was executed. A few others are now on death row for arson murders, but most are serving prison terms. The Bureau of Justice Statistics counted 5,405 people imprisoned as of 2002 for arson, but that covered just more than half the states.
Among the flawed ideas that convicted Willingham:
Gasoline-fueled fires burn hotter than wood fires, and melted aluminum in the house proved it was intentionally set. But gas blazes aren’t necessarily hotter, experts said.
“Crazed” glass, a spidery cracking of glass, which investigators testified proved the presence of a hotter fire caused by an accelerant like gasoline. Experts now believe that cracking may occur when water is sprayed during firefighting, or if the glass is struck.
Investigators testified the fire had “multiple origins,” which implies it was intentionally set. The experts who reviewed the testimony said there was no credible way to determine that.
Those ideas were “a hodgepodge of old wives’ tales” accepted as fact without any scientific support, said Gerald Hurst, a private arson investigator trained as a chemist.
“Reading fire patterns the way they did it is like tea-reading,” Hurst said.
The mindset began to shift with a fire investigation study commissioned by a federal panel in 1977. But the real revolution came in 1992, when the National Fire Protection Association – a nonprofit group of insurers, businesses, firefighters, builders and others – issued a consensus document on fire investigations that discredited many long-accepted techniques.
Still, fire investigators took years to accept it. The International Association of Arson Investigators finally endorsed the the 1992 document in 2000.
Even so, reluctance to embrace the modern approach persists, said David M. Smith, a private fire investigator in Tucson, Ariz. Thus, many investigations may use shoddy science, said Smith, who helped on the Willingham case.
“It’s not a joke, though my colleagues kid about it,” Smith said. “If there is a fire and you get out and the rest of your family perishes, there’s a pretty darn good chance you’ll be arrested for arson and murder.”
Jerry Rudden, a Tennessee arson and bomb investigator, said the criminal justice system’s checks and balances should protect against convictions based on misguided testimony.
Meanwhile, investigators are working to improve the state of knowledge. “There is a sustained effort on the part of folks in the business to raise the bar,” said Rudden, who heads the IAAI’s fire investigation panel.