Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Arson cases fueling innocence debates

The Texas Observer last week took on a topic discussed frequently on this blog - arson investigations based on debunked forensics. Examining a 2004 case, Dave Mann writes:
Florida-based John Lentini, one of the best-known fire investigators in the nation, agrees. “What we had was a bunch of guys who claim to be expert fire investigators telling a jury that they can see multiple origins,” Lentini says. “Quite frankly, I couldn’t see that.” The investigation of the Lone Star Guns fire was typical, he says. “It’s an appealing notion that you can calculate multiple points of origin. This school of thought hasn’t been validated, and it leads to false convictions.”
In that case:

Two of the leading arson experts in the country believe the fire at Lone Star Guns was accidental. They say it had a single point of origin, sparked by a frayed electric cord found at the scene, and was spread by a case of aerosol cans sitting nearby. The cans were filled with highly flammable gun cleaner. When aerosol cans explode, they can act like blowtorches, spewing flaming liquid all over. These experts say the ATF agents, using sloppy methods, mistook an aerosol-can explosion for a three-point-of-origin fire.

“Spray cans can create the illusion of multiple origins,” says Gerald Hurst, an arson and explosives expert who lives in Austin. “Arson investigation always has one basic tenet. You have to eliminate all reasonable natural and accidental causes of the origins of the fire.” In Severns’ case, “There is no way in hell you can eliminate those spray cans.” ...

Over the past 15 years, many unscientific assumptions about how fire spreads—inherited knowledge passed from one generation of investigators to another—have turned out to be wrong. Using newer methods, Hurst has helped exonerate dozens of people wrongly convicted of arson, including two infamous cases in Texas, and has helped save several defendants from the death chamber. He believes [Curtis] Severns was railroaded. As Hurst put it at Severns’ 2006 trial in Sherman when asked how the fire spread, “If that’s not a spray can, I’m a monkey’s uncle.”

Read the whole thing and watch a video demonstration by the ATF of what happens when aerosol cans burn - evidence that contradicts "expert" forensic testimony put on by the prosecution at trial.

See also an Innocence Project of Texas fact sheet about good legislation that would help inmates convicted based on now-discredited forensics, particularly arson, get back into court via post-conviction writs.

Related Grits posts:

1 comment:

123txpublicdefender123 said...

The quotes from the prosecutor in that poor man's case are disturbing, to say the least. She calls the opinions of these renowned fire investigators who have helped exonerate dozens of wrongfully incaracerated innocents "crap." Nice. Because she knows so much.

I also note that the opinion denying the man a new trial was written by Priscilla Owen, a terrible former TX Supreme Court justice Bush put on the 5th Circuit. The Dems blocked her for a long while, but finally approved her. I knew she would be an absolute disaster. She was never qualified for the bench and has always been nothing but a Republican hack. Her ruling was that, even though the prosecutors committed misconduct by not turning over the tape, it would not have affected the outcome of the case. Considering that the outcome of the case hinged on the credibility of the various experts, I would say a videotape that completely undermined the testimony of one of the government's experts could very well have changed the outcome of the case.

What a tragedy.