Sue Russell provides an insightful look at arson investigations. It is a battle over science and techniques.
As decades of flawed and unscientific fire investigation techniques call arson convictions into question, new recipes emerge for a system-wide overhaul.
Discredited traditions and bad science have led many fire investigations to unjustifiably point to arson.Phoenix attorney Larry Hammond knows just how much is riding on the paperwork on his desk. The chairman of the Arizona Justice Project, he is fighting hard to overturn the conviction of Louis C. Taylor, imprisoned 38 years ago for intentionally setting a catastrophic fire at Tucson’s landmark Pioneer Hotel that ultimately killed 29 people. Ever since Hammond first studied the case in 1999, he’s been convinced that the blaze was not arson.He knows he has a tough road ahead.
Taylor, now in his 50s but then a 16-year-old petty thief known to hang around pool halls, claimed he slipped into the hotel that December night to cadge free food and drinks in the ballroom. After the fire broke out, he was spotted nearby with matches in his pocket.
Unfortunately for Taylor, 1970 was the dark ages of fire investigation. Arson investigator Cyrillis W. Holmes Jr. found no tangible evidence of how the fire started, yet he divined from burn patterns and fire debris that at least two fires had been deliberately set about 60 feet apart in the fourth-floor hallways.
Multiple points of origin are a powerful indicator of arson — if they’re real. But old-time fire investigation was a mix of old wives’ tales, myths and oral hand-me-down wisdom with no science behind it. Fire debris was read like tea leaves. And marks on floors and carpets called “pour patterns” were routinely interpreted as points of origin and cited as evidence of an arsonist pouring liquid accelerants like gasoline.
Since then, science has rendered such “arson indicators” obsolete and convictions based upon them questionable.
It is one thing to suspect that fallacious evidence helped convict someone like Taylor, quite another to secure a new trial or exoneration because of “new” scientific evidence. But Larry Hammond isn’t cowed by a tough fight, and buoyed by a “breathtaking” report from renowned independent fire scientist John Lentini, he’s readying a petition to file in state court.
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