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The Latest in Arson Investigation

Doctors, they say, bury their mistakes. If this were a blog about medical malpractice law, we might be inclined to add: Not if we have anything to say about it. But we will leave that to all the personal injury attorneys out there. From the standpoint of criminal defense, there is an unfortunate parallel developing in the field of arson investigation: For a long time, it seems, arson investigators have been sending their mistakes to prison.

It is not entirely their fault. The problem lies in the realities of fire science, which, like science in general, has a habit of constantly marching on. Now, far be it from us to question the value of progress — but did you ever notice how the manufacturers of, say, laundry detergent, are always introducing a New and Improved version of something they touted as the ultimate clothes-washing experience last week?  It is not much different in forensic fields like fire science, except laundry detergent probably never ruined a life.

Researchers are finding that many people may be serving long prison terms for arson convictions based on fire science that has since been called into question. For instance, it turns out that burn patterns once considered sure-fire (so to speak) evidence of arson can actually be caused by other factors. Also, until the first set of uniform fire investigation guidelines was published in 1992, there was little consistency in how jurisdictions analyzed and interpreted fire-related findings.

In Texas alone, activists for the Innocence Project have identified about 60 arson convictions they believe may have been based on faulty fire science. Their findings could play a pivotal role in supporting appeals of arson convictions — as it did recently in overturning the conviction of a 72-year-old California man serving a life sentence for arson.

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