On the way home from the office the other night I caught the current episode of the Murderish podcast – “Lime Street Fire.” The episode concerns an arson investigation in Jacksonville. Jami Rice also covered the Cameron Todd Willingham case earlier this year.
The episode is important because it looks at the evolution of arson investigation. As anyone who has looked into arson cases knows, most of the knowledge an arson investigator has is what has been passed down over the years. There are a number of old saws they pull out of the bag such as pour pattern and v-pattern which they use to peg arson as a cause of a fire.
This case is remarkable because fire experts were brought in to conduct tests to determine whether (1) whether these pour-patterns or v-patterns had any real meaning and (2) whether the fire could have started the way the suspect said it did.
The results were astounding. The investigators found an identical home to the one that burned, set it up just like the home that got burned (down to the brand of furniture) and set it on fire — not once, but twice. What they found was that the presence of v-patterns had nothing to do with where a fire was started and many so-called pour patterns were the result of flashover.
This episode also illustrates the problem with the introduction of new “forensic sciences” in criminal cases. Over on the civil side judges have no problem deeming scientific evidence inadmissible after Daubert and Frye hearings. In the criminal courts, however, judges have never been all that keen on performing their gatekeeper roles with regard to scientific evidence.
For far too long the state has been able to introduce so-called scientific evidence without regard as to whether the new science has been thoroughly tested. We’ve seen bullet alloy analysis, tire track analysis, bite mark analysis and arson investigation, just to name a few, that have all been debunked for the junk they were. It is frightening that judges seem to be more concerned with saving insurance companies money than they do in protecting the rights of criminal defendants.