Saturday, December 09, 2006

Thousands May Have Been Wrongfully Convicted Based on Faulty Arson Science

The AP shines a light on one of the biggest scandals in the criminal justice system over the past few decades--bad science in the field of fire/arson investigation. (The Chicago Tribune did a story on this over two years ago as part of their excellent series on problems with forensic science.) Unfortunately, almost no one knows anything about it, and wrongfully convicted people remain in prison to this day, and at least one almost certainly innocent man was executed in Texas because of it. For years and years, so-called fire investigation experts believed that fires inside of buildings worked a certain way. This led them to believe that certain signs at a fire scene were clear cut signs of an intentionally set fire. Now that these assumptions and conclusions have been rigorously subjected to scientific scrutiny, it is clear that they were just plain wrong. Many of these believed clear cut signs of arson are actually signs of an accidental fire. A couple years ago, Ernest Willis, on death row in Texas for capital murder by arson, was set free when a new district attorney was presented with the new scientific evidence that convinced him of Willis's innocence. Cameron Willingham (pictured above), however, wasn't so lucky. He was executed for using arson to murder his three children. The only evidence supporting a conclusion of arson was the now thoroughly discredited fire investigation science. This is a scandal that deserves much greater attention and a concerted effort should be undertaken to bring justice to the many wrongfully convicted, many of whom no doubt still linger in prison for crimes that never happened.

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