Thursday, June 04, 2009

Junk arson science helped secure capital murder conviction

Walter Reaves, an attorney out of Waco (see his blog here), is becoming the go-to defense lawyer in Texas on arson cases involving antiquated junk science, taking the issue on at a very high level after his client Cameron Todd Willingham was executed based on bad arson science. Here's a story about a case he's working on with the Baylor Innocence Project as reported by KXXV Channel 25 (June 2):
New scientific developments in arson analysis may help set free a man convicted of capital murder more than 20 years ago.

Ed Graf was convicted of killing his two stepsons by burning them in a backyard shed in 1986. But the burn patterns on the floor that had given prosecutors reason to believe it was arson by gasoline, is now being revisited by scientists using newer knowledge of fires developed in the last two decades.

Attorney Walter Reaves and law students with the Baylor Innocence Project dug up the case and asked Dr. Gerald Hurst to re-examine the old evidence.

"Burns on the floor, holes in the floor, had been misinterpreted as being the accelerant poured like gasoline," said Dr. Hurst, "When in fact those patterns were caused by a phenomenon called flashover."

Flashover occurs when all combustible material in an enclosed area ignites almost simultaneously. Hurst said that objects in the shed, like the fold-up cot, could have brought the shed to the point of flashover in a matter of three minutes. Hurst even called the polyurethane foam in the mattress "solid gasoline."

But the original prosecutor, Vic Feazell, said that circumstantial evidence pointed strongly to Graf. "We had so much circumstantial evidence that I believe the jury would have convicted Ed Graf even without the arson evidence."

The circumstantial evidence he refers to is the fact that Graf did not feed the boys or fill their cereal boxes in the last days like he normally did, that he bought life insurance for them only months before the incident, and waited until the last minute to buy them new school clothes, all signs that the prosecutors said that meant Graf knew the boys would soon be gone.

In addition to evidence against Graf's character, original fire investigators also pointed to the burn patterns they thought were caused by gasoline, and the latch that had locked the boys in the shed. That physical evidence from the fire, however, is now being refuted by Hurst.

"In the period of the Graf case it was totally subjective," Hurst said in regard to the burn patterns. "But it was subject to a bunch of old wives' tales that people really believed in."

Don Youngblood, the original defense investigator, added, "It's been shown now that the assumptions made under the testimony by the fire experts was faulty, that the conclusions reached were not accurate."
Dave Mann at the Texas Observer recently covered this case in depth, concluding "It’s ... difficult to say conclusively that Graf is innocent. What does seem clear is that, given the botched forensics in the case, he never should have been convicted."


Anonymous said...

I don't know if all of it was brought out in Court, but there was other circumstantial evidence. He had insisted that the mother's photo albums of the two boys (hers by a previous marriage) be stored in that shed. He had lost his job at a local bank the year or so before for embezzling about $100,000. which his parents had paid to keep him from being prosecuted, so he had a big debt to pay. He then became an insurance adjuster and had attended seminars on arson investigation.

It's just too bad they did not go entirely on the circumstantial at the time. Now they have to go back and try to piece it all together some twenty years later and drag everyone through it again.

Anonymous said...

Recently, after the Gallery Furniture fire in Houston happened, an ATF investigator reportedly stated that it was arson because they had no evidence of an accidental fire - basically saying that if we can't prove an accident then it's a crime! That statement exemplifies the attitude of arson investigators. For a defendant it means that they have to prove their innocence instead of the state proving they are guilty. If they are incompetent in their investigation, for example, and fail to ID the accidental source, the defendant has to somehow prove that failure or incompetence in court to prove their own innocence. Once had a an investigator tell me about an arson investigator getting ready to indict a home owner because they couldn't prove an accidental source for a kitchen blaze and while discussing the case one last time with the "suspect" at the scene, an animal walked into the the kitchen through an open window, across the stove burner controls and in so doing turned on the burners! Never would a defendant have been able to prove their innocence in that case. Saved by pure luck from an indictment. Classic case of poor investigative theory. :~)

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...
6/06/2009 09:08:00 PM

For a defendant it means that they have to prove their innocence instead of the state proving they are guilty.

This seems to be the way it's done in Texas. At least in 40 DNA exonerations. I would hate like hell to be accused of a crime and NOT have a alibi. That's almost a certain conviction in a lot of Texas counties. So much for hanging out alone.

Anonymous said...

Not in Texas. This could never happen here. Must be a!