News 09.14.09

Arson and Bad Science

The Dallas Morning News yesterday

investigated the forensics behind arson convictions

and asked – in the wake of the Cameron Todd Willingham case — whether there might be others in prison based on false arson analysis.

Although arson investigation techniques have improved significantly over the last two decades and become more scientifically supported, attorneys and scientists say they still see arson myths perpetuated inside and outside of courtrooms.

"Accidental fires being turned into arsons is going on all the time," said Gerald Hurst, a Cambridge-educated chemist who was the chief scientist for the nation's largest explosive manufacturer.

Cameron Todd Willingham was sentenced to death in Texas in 1992 for allegedly setting a fire that killed his three young children. Many of the investigation techniques used by arson experts at Willingham’s trial had been debunked years before he was convicted, but this didn’t come to light at his trial. Although evidence that Willingham’s conviction was based on flawed arson analysis was received by the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole before his schedule execution date, the board did not act on the report and he was executed in 2004.

An exhaustive new report in New Yorker deconstructs every piece of evidence at Willingham’s trial and shows that he was innocent.

Learn more about Willingham’s case and read the full New Yorker story here

.

There are 742 people in prison in Texas for arson, and about 275 are convicted of the crime each year. How many of these convictions are based on flawed science?

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