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Many wrongful arson convictions based on debunked science

Imagine losing your spouse and children in a devastating house fire. While trying to process this immense loss, police accuse you of intentionally setting the fire. This was the horror felt by a Midwestern man who spent 26 years in prison for a crime that wasn’t a crime at all.

Our post last week focused on the unsettling reality that most of forensic science does not yield results that are scientifically accurate and reliable. In recent years, much of what fire investigators thought they knew about evidence of arson has also been debunked. In the past 24 years, there have been at least 17 overturned arson convictions listed in the National Registry of Exonerations.

One was a Michigan man convicted in 1985 of setting a fire that killed his wife and two baby girls. He was convicted, in part, based on irregular, circular burn patterns discovered in the remnants of his living room floor. At the time, this was considered conclusive proof that someone had poured an accelerant like gasoline.

Despite the fact that the man was badly burned and bleeding when he was found, he was the main suspect and was convicted quickly. The “evidence” used to convict him was thought to only occur when fires were set intentionally. It has since been discovered that such burn patterns can also occur in accidental fires.

This is the problem with junk science – it still has the word “science” attached to it. Prosecutors may tell jurors (with complete but erroneous sincerity) that forensic evidence clearly indicates that a crime has been committed and that the evidence is irrefutable. But in reality, this is rarely the case.

This wrongfully convicted man had no history of violence and no criminal record. Yet investigators had decided early on that the fire was caused by arson. They used supposedly ironclad evidence to make the facts fit the story they had already written.

If you are facing serious criminal charges and have been wrongly accused, you cannot depend on the evidence to speak for itself and clear your name. You need the help of an experienced and dedicated criminal defense attorney.

Source: NBC News, "Trial by Fire: Junk Science Sent Dad to Prison for Killing Wife, Kids," Hannah Rappleye, Lisa Riordan seville, Jeff Rossen and Kevin Monahan, June 19, 2014

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