Many Arson Convictions Being Challenged Over Outdated Science

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Daniel Dougherty of Philadelphia was convicted of setting a fire that killed his two sons , and was sentenced to death. Because the fire started nearly simultaneously in three places, John Quinn, an assistant fire marshal, concluded it was a case of arson, says

Several leading arson experts now say there was no scientific evidence of arson that night. Quinn “was so far off base it’s unbelievable that no one challenged his expertise or methodology,” said John Lentini, a nationally known fire investigator who is a defense expert in Dougherty’s motion to vacate his conviction.

Outdated techniques once commonly used by fire investigators, Lentini and others warn, may have landed dozens of innocent people in prison for fires they did not start. Dougherty’s case is one of what is expected to be a string of legal challenges to arson cases from the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. Though it’s unclear how many convictions may have been based on what critics say is outdated science, experts consulted by put the number at anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred. Arson convictions are more difficult to overturn than cases where clear-cut DNA evidence points to a defendant’s innocence.

“You’re not going to have the comfort of an authoritative DNA test to tell you you’re right or wrong,” said James Doyle, director of the Center for Modern Forensic Practice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


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