Tuesday, June 17, 2014

'Leading Fire Investigation Into the 21st Century'

At TexasMonthly.com, Brantley Hargrove has a substantial piece titled "Leading Fire Investigation Into the 21st Century" about the case of Sonia Cacy, a West Texas woman accused of arson who was found guilty based on flawed junk science. For the record, Cacy is currently represented in her habeas corpus proceeding by Gary Udashen, who is board president of my employer, the Innocence Project of Texas.

Hargrove framed the story in terms of the renewal and revival of arson science in Texas beginning when Gerald Hurst first analyzed expert testimony in Sonia Cacy's case to help her secure parole in the 1990s. He related the role of the Todd Willingham execution and the post-mortem political fiasco surrounding the Texas Forensic Science Commission as a spur to banishing bad science in Texas arson cases. And he described state fire marshal Chris Conneally's panel of experts reviewing old arson cases like Cacy's and Ed Graf's to identify bad science and reinforce the use of the good stuff.

Grits is happy to see wider coverage of these obscure but important topics. Go read the whole thing.

1 comment:

"Red" Merriweather Coast said...

Arson has to be one of the toughest things to investigate. Everything at the scene is contaminated!

I'm finding it interesting that many of the false-conviction cases involved police officers saying that the survivor wasn't reacting the way they expected he or she would to the fire. I've also heard that same sentiment come up in relation to police officers interviewing rape victims - that they aren't displaying the "right" emotional response. Rebecca Ruiz wrote about it in Slate:

"... police officers with no specialized training often antagonize victims as they zero in on discrepancies. It’s understandable: Cops learn to interview victims based on interrogation practices, which emphasize establishing a timeline and key facts. But what may seem like good police work, Lisak says, can lead a detective to press victims in a way that yields misleading or false information, as they prematurely try to piece together fragmented memories.

"Cops must also learn that trauma influences victims in ways law enforcement won’t necessarily understand. One notorious example is victims’ flat affect. This always puzzled senior officer Holly Whillock, a 13-year veteran of the Houston Police Department. She expected victims to be enraged or visibly anguished, but instead they spoke coolly, without emotion."

It seems that this reaction to trauma would generalize beyond rape cases to others. Retraining police officers when it comes to interview techniques and giving them more information on how people can react to trauma can help them investigate all sorts of reported crimes as well as other traumatic events, like fires of unknown cause.