Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Evolving Science Challenges Old Arson Convictions

Evolving Science Challenges Old Arson Convictions

That's the title of Maurice Possley's article in today's Chicago Tribune. It's an update on the Tribune's recurring series, "Forensics Under the Microscope." A 2004 article in the series, questioned the evidence used to convict Cameron Willingham, executed by Texas earlier that year.

Today's article is here.

The cases highlight not just the evolving science behind arson investigations, but two crucial issues facing the field: an ongoing split on whether to accept scientifically established fact and a lack of training to bring investigators up to date on the latest thinking.

"The current training process is, in most cases, deficient in teaching fundamental knowledge that can be applied to all fires," said Douglas Carpenter, a fire investigator.

Earlier this year, Carpenter and Richard Roby, both of Maryland-based Combustion Science & Engineering Inc., along with Jose Torero of the University of Edinburgh, which has long pioneered fire research, called for development of a more advanced science curriculum for fire investigators.

The leading guide to fire science is a manual known as NFPA 921, a publication of the National Fire Protection Association, an international group dedicated to fire safety. First published in 1992, it is a guide to the scientific debunking of old and unproven arson theories.

"I am not sure how far we have come since the introduction of NFPA 921," said Carpenter. "We certainly have raised awareness, but I do not think the [investigation of fires] has advanced as much as some think it has."

While some in the forensic community equate the significance of the new scientific findings with the advent of DNA testing, there are key differences. For one, fire science is nowhere near as precise, and in fact makes a strong case that investigators should rarely point to fire-scene evidence as 100 percent proof of arson.

With some investigators refusing to embrace new science, a spate of high-profile court cases is emerging where fire evidence is being strenuously debated.

The article also has an accompanying graphic, "Arson fallacies persist."

In May 2006, shortly before our server crash, the Innocence Project issued a report on the Willingham case. The report and supporting documents are here. The Project has asked the Texas Forensics Science Commission, created by the last Texas Legislature, to investigate the Willingham case.

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