Attorneys who are handling cases involving arson allegations should be aware of the Forensic Science Assessments: A Quality and Gap Analysis – Fire Investigation publication that was released this month (July 2017). The report was produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The report looks at the discipline of fire investigations and identifies which parts are well founded in science and where gaps in knowledge exist. The report identifies 25 areas in need of additional research. The report is divided into the topics of fire scene investigation and fire debris analysis. The report concludes that canine alerts should not be relied upon unless confirmed by laboratory analysis (pp. 7, 18, 30). The report notes that some research has found erroneous conclusions about point of origin in excess of 75% (p. 5 of plain language version). Additional research regarding error rates is needed. (pp. 7-8). The report also contains an in-depth discussion of cognitive bias, the role it plays in fire investigation, and recommendations for minimizing bias in fire scene investigation (p. 8, 13, 26).
The full report is available for free download. A “plain language” summary version is also available.
The report is the result of a Working Group consisting of an academic fire engineer, an analytical chemist, a cognitive psychologist, and a forensic practitioner. The work was guided by an Advisory Committee which included a law enforcement official, a social scientist, a cognitive psychologist, a law professor, a judge, a biomedical researcher, a forensic scientist, and a statistician.
Paul Bieber (Director at Arson Research Project: http://thearsonproject.org/research/) explores the misidentification of an accidental fire as an act of arson and how unreliable, quasi-scientific techniques led to the mistaken execution of an innocent man. On June 30th, join the UNC School of Government and the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services for the seventh installation in the Evenings at the School of Government series, Beyond Willingham: Recognizing Errors and Crafting Solutions in Fire Investigations. The program provides one and a half (1.5) CLE credit hours and is designed to enhance the knowledge of all criminal law practitioners, not only in understanding the investigative techniques used, but in raising challenges to that evidence.
Location, Date, and Time: Thursday, June 30th, 2016 at the UNC School of Government room 2603. Sign-in begins at 5:15pm, the program begins at 5:30pm, and is set to conclude by 7:00pm.
RSVP: Registration is not required, but we ask that you RSVP via email to Monica Yelverton, at email@example.com.
Materials: Materials for this program are forthcoming and will be available on the program website http://www.sog.unc.edu/courses/evenings-school-government under the materials tab. Those who RSVP for this event will receive a confirmation email on June 23, 2016 with a link to the program materials. Please note that the materials will not be provided in hard-copy form at the program. We recommend that you either bring a laptop to access the materials electronically or bring a hardcopy.
The National Institute of Justice has made available the following reports that address various techniques used in fire investigations. These reports may be useful to attorneys handling cases were arson is alleged. Each report attempts to document best practices for investigating specific aspects of fires.
Filed under Arson, Resources
Discover Magazine recently published two articles about how recent scientific investigation has challenged the traditional principles and methodology of fire investigation. Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials? explains how these developments have occurred and Seven Myths About Arson debunks seven fire scene findings that have been used in numerous cases as evidence of arson.
In light of these articles being published and the recommendations of the Texas Forensic Science Commission discussed below, I have updated the Arson Resources page of the IDS forensics website with several new articles and resources. Take a look at the changes I have made!
On October 28, 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended a review of arson convictions in the state to determine whether faulty science could have led to wrongful convictions. The State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Innocence Project of Texas will assist in the review.
Click here to read the Commission’s recommendations or visit the Innocence Project’s website for more information on the recommendations and the Cameron Todd Willingham case.