Monday, March 2, 2009

Arson convictions "feeling the heat"

The recent report from the National Academy of Sciences tore into traditional forensic techniques used to analyze cases of arson, among other sciences. But it is not the first time that fire science has met resistance from experts in the field, or scientists outside it. An article in Miller-McCune magazine has a lengthy article detailing arson science's somewhat troubled history.

Even though much of the science has been discredited, Phoenix Attorney Larry Hammond points out the difficulties of getting a conviction overturned.

"Our legal system is designed to foreclose post-conviction review," [Hammond] noted, "and it does frustrate, and has frustrated, many of these cases." Attorney Walter Reaves, who works with the Innocence Project of Texas, agreed: "You have to convince a court that it is (newly discovered evidence), and then you have to convince them to actually listen and hear it."

DNA is the undisputed gold standard for exonerations, a virtually unassailable magic bullet. But arson convictions are a new frontier for exoneration work, and they are qualitatively different. If you find a bullet or knife in a dead man's back, no one disputes that a crime has taken place. Fires, however, are not so simple.
I found this following quote especially egregious:
Arson is the only crime for which someone can receive the death penalty based on the testimony of an expert witness whose education ended with high school.
And the article discusses possible suggestions for fixing the problem.
Common themes emerge when discussing reforms. One hot topic is the routine dependence on negative corpus evidence —simply put, investigators rule out electrical faults and exploding coffee pots, for example, rather than rule in evidence of how a fire did in fact start. So rather than a more accurate description of "cause undetermined," fires are often called arsons based on investigation by exclusion.

To veteran investigator Patrick Kennedy, that practice is unethical and immoral. "I don't know what it is, so it must be arson?" he said. "That is a pretty poor reason to kill somebody."

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