New Science of Arson Enables Defenders to Challenge Convictions


An Ohio death row inmate hopes the state parole board will permit him to argue that a mysterious “man in red” could have started the 1990 fire that killed his 3-year-old son, says the Associated Press. Michael Webb says investigators using now-discredited methods came to the wrong conclusion about where in the house the flames broke out. Investigators say Webb set the fire to kill his family, collect the insurance and start a new life with his mistress.

It is one of a series of cases that represent a new legal frontier: Defense attorneys cite advances in the fire investigation science to challenge arson convictions, as they use DNA to clear people for murder and rape. Research has challenged long-held assumptions about how flames spread and the tell-tale signs they leave. “Our scientific understandings have improved in recent years, and the effect of that has to be to say, `We’ve got some innocent people who’ve been declared guilty based on misunderstandings,'” said John Hall of the National Fire Protection Association. It used to be common for investigators to conclude an accelerant like gasoline was used if a fire burned particularly hot. In fact, the new arson science has found no such correlation. Another mistaken assumption: A V-shaped pattern on a wall of a burned building is proof of arson. All it shows is where a fire started.

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