Tag Archives: arson forensic science

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Wrongly Convicted: Arson or Accident?

Originally posted  to the Huffington Post Crime Blog on Feb 1, 2016

by Jessica S. Henry 

In December 2015, four men convicted of murder and arson in two completely unrelated cases were exonerated.

In Virginia, in 1989, Davey Reedy was convicted of deliberately setting his house on fire. His two children died in the fire. At his trial for murder and arson, fire science experts testified about evidence that they said proved that Reedy committed arson.

In New York, in 1981, Raymond Mora, Amaury Villalobos, and William Vasquez were convicted of deliberately setting a fire that caused the 1980 death of a young mother and her five children. At their trials, experts testified that they fire was intentionally set.

When modern fire science experts finally reviewed the cases, they conclusively agreed that the fire “science” used to convict all four men was invalid. Faulty. Incorrect.

And that the so-called arson was not arson.

Small comfort for each of the men who had been convicted. Reedy served over twenty years in prison for killing his two children. Villalobos and Vasquez, who went blind in prison due to untreated glaucoma, each served over thirty years in prison; Mora was only 8 years into his life sentence when he died in prison in 1989.

Each man lost decades in prison, serving time for crimes they did not commit.

For crimes that were not in fact crimes.

And these recent exonerations are just a sampling of cases involving convictions based on bad fire science.

Take David Lee Gavitt, who spent 26 years in a Michigan prison for the 1985 killing of his wife and baby girls in a blaze that was erroneously labeled arson. Decades later, the fire was ruled an accident; Gavitt was exonerated in 2014.

Cameron Todd Willingham was not so lucky. Willingham was executed in Texas for the arson-murder of his three children. Scientists agree now that the “evidence” of arson cited by fire experts at the time was just junk science. He died proclaiming his innocence.

Advances in fire science have revealed that factors once thought to prove a fire was intentionally started also are present when fires are the accidental. This has prompted the re-examination of some older arson convictions from around the country.

And that is good news.

Because while it is unspeakably awful to be wrongly convicted of a crime, it’s got to be that much worse to be wrongly convicted of a tragic event that was never a crime in the first place.

Follow Jessica S. Henry on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/jhenryjustice




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Breaking News: Osaka High Court Rejects Appeal by Prosecutor, Orders Release in Higashi-Sumiyoshi Arson Case

Osaka High Court rejected the appeal by the prosecutor today, and ordered release of two petitioners (serving life sentences) in a high profile arson case, Higashi Sumiyoshi Case. Read about the case here.

In this case, the Osaka District Court ruled to grant a retrial in 2012. The Presiding Judge stated in the decision that the petitioners’ confessions were unreliable and unreasonable from a “scientific viewpoint”, taking into consideration the result of a new experiment by experts.

However, to the dismay of the supporters, the prosecutors instantly appealed the ruling, and the retrial petition was being reviewed by the Osaka High Court.

Osaka High Court today ruled that according to additional experiments and statements by experts, the confessions by peritioners can no longer be evaluated as reliable. It also ordered release of petitioners from prisons.

The criminal procedure code in Japan writes that the prosecutors can still appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.

Modern Forensics vs. Good Old-Fashioned Texas Justice: The Trials of Ed Graf

From: Slate.com

By Jeremy Stahl

Ed Graf was a bad employee. While working at Community Bank in Texas in the 1980s, he allegedly embezzled from his employer, eventually paying the bank more than $75,000 to avoid prosecution. Ed Graf was a bad husband. His ex-wife, Clare, would call him “the most possessive person I’ve ever known.” Clare’s best friend, Carol Schafer, said her husband, Earl, saw Graf having sex with another woman the night of Graf’s bachelor party. Ed Graf was, according to Clare and her family, a bad father. Two of Clare’s family members accused him of beating his adopted stepsons, Joby and Jason, with a board and belt.

In 1988, a Texas jury found that Ed Graf was also a murderer. Prosecutors argued that two years earlier, on Aug. 26, 1986, Graf had knocked out Joby, 9, and Jason, 8, and placed the boys in the back of their family shed. Graf had then spread gasoline, locked the shed, and set the boys ablaze. The two inseparable, athletic, blond-haired brothers died of smoke inhalation and severe burns in the backyard of their home. The address was 505 Angel Fire Drive.

On the day of the fire, Graf broke the news to his wife, telling Clare that both boys had been lost in the blaze. But Graf had been informed that the body of one child had been found, not both. It was one of many pieces of circumstantial evidence that prosecutors would pile up to present Graf as a calculating, greedy, and callous monster who murdered the children in a desperate attempt to keep his troubled marriage together.

Other small clues seemed to point to Graf’s guilt. Multiple witnesses say they saw a gasoline container on the porch, not far from the kids’ bikes. Graf also acted strangely after the fire. He suggested the boys be buried in one coffin, according to multiple witnesses. He didn’t offer his wife consolation, or apologize that they died in his care. A few weeks after the fire, Graf returned about $50 worth of Joby and Jason’s new school clothes that he had previously insisted they keep the tags on. There was more of what others saw as signs of foreknowledge. The normally meticulous Graf, who was said to keep lists for everything, neglected to buy the boys’ cereal or fill Jason’s Dimetapp prescription the week of their deaths.

In addition to the circumstantial evidence, prosecutors were able to present motive. Weeks before the fire, Graf had taken out $100,000 worth of combined life insurance on the boys if they were to die in an accident. The policies had been mailed out the day before the fire.

The real motive, prosecutors argued, was to get the boys—a source of regular bickering between Graf and his wife—out of their lives. His wife testified that shortly before the fire, she had threatened to leave him over his strict discipline of Joby and Jason, sons from a previous marriage, and to take their newborn third son, Edward III, with her.

The case was still largely circumstantial, though. The thing that likely clinched Graf’s conviction was the scientific testimony of a pair of forensic examiners. Joseph Porter, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, testified that, based on his analysis of photos of the remains of the scene, the door of the shed must have been locked from the outside at the time of the fire, which would indicate foul play. He also said there were obvious charring patterns on the floor of the shed left by an accelerant. “The fire was definitely incendiary,” Porter declared. The prosecution’s other expert, a top fire investigator from New York known for his report on the Osage Avenue fire, a notorious fire set by Philadelphia officials that destroyed a primarily black neighborhood, was brought in to testify that there was “no doubt” that this was arson.

If the fire was intentionally set, then Graf was the only suspect with means, motives, and opportunity. Even if there was no direct evidence connecting him to the crime, the circumstantial evidence and the word of two arson experts was enough. The jury deliberated for four hours before pronouncing him guilty of capital murder.

The jurors then had to decide the punishment. The district attorney, Vic Feazell, said that the “facts of the case cry out” for the death penalty—two boys burned alive, murdered by a trusted parent.

Defense attorney Charles McDonald gave an impassioned plea that the jurors had convicted an innocent man and would make the injustice irreversible if they chose execution over life in prison. “I’m asking for this man’s life because if you did make a mistake there’s going to be some folks, somewhere down the line, it may be years … but maybe the mistake can be corrected,” McDonald argued. “If you take this man’s life, there ain’t no way to ever correct it.” The jurors must have found this argument compelling, because they spared Ed Graf’s life.

Twenty-five years later, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decided that a mistake had, in fact, been made. The investigators who testified the fire was arson used what in the years since has been discredited as junk science. A state review panel set up to examine bad forensic science in arson cases said that the evidence did not point to an incendiary fire. A top fire scientist in the field went one step further: The way the boys had died, from carbon monoxide inhalation rather than burns, proved the fire couldn’t have been set by Graf spreading an accelerant, and was thus likely accidental. The defense’s theory was that the boys, who multiple witnesses said had a history of playing with matches and cigarettes, had set the fire themselves, attempted to put it out, and been quickly overcome by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The reason Ed Graf’s case was reviewed a quarter of a century after he barely escaped the death chamber was because of one man: Cameron Todd Willingham. He was convicted, based on similarly faulty scientific evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant who later recanted and said he was bribed, of murdering his three children by setting their home on fire two days before Christmas in 1991. Willingham was executed 11 years ago. Only after Willingham’s death was it revealed publicly that the forensic evidence used to convict him was bunk. In 2009, the New Yorker’s David Grann wrote a groundbreaking article describing Texas’ flawed case against Willingham. The story sparked a national uproar over forensic science and the death penalty.

Then Texas did something surprising. While the state has not budged in its use of the death penalty—just last year topping 500 executions since the state brought back capital punishment in 1982—it has reinvented itself as a leader in arson science and investigation. A new fire marshal, Chris Connealy, revamped the state’s training and investigative standards. He also set up a panel comprised of some of the top fire scientists in the country to reconsider old cases that had been improperly handled by the original investigators.

Graf’s case was one of the first up for review, and it was determined that the original investigators had made critical mistakes. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, overturning the original conviction.

Graf’s successful appeal proved that Texas was serious about correcting past forensic errors, but his story was far from over. Prosecutors in Waco were not convinced of his innocence. They felt that they had enough evidence to reconvict. Just because the forensic science was flawed didn’t change the fact that, in the eyes of prosecutors, Ed Graf was a bad employee, a bad husband, and a bad father—a man capable of murdering his adopted children.

So there was a new trial, and Graf became the first man in Texas to be retried for an arson murder that had been overturned thanks to advances in fire science. His new trial set up a clash between modern forensics and the old way of pursuing criminal justice in Texas, a state where prosecutors have often gone to questionable lengths to win convictions against high profile murder defendants—including multiple men later proved innocent.

Prosecutors in Graf’s retrial spared no effort to win a second conviction in a strange and dramatic retrial last October. The trial’s surreal and unforeseeable conclusion would have a profound impact not just on the fate of Ed Graf, but on the lives of other prisoners who in the wake of the Willingham case held out new hope that their convictions might be overturned and their innocence acknowledged…

Continue reading on Slate.com at Chapter 2 New Memories

Re-examination of Arson Convictions to Begin in Texas

Nine years ago Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas after being convicted of killing his three children in a fire. Whether or not the tragic fire was a crime or an accident has been a haunting question in light of alternative explanations for the burn patterns once believed to be proof of the use of an accelerant. According to an Associated Press press in the Baylor Lariat (here), next month an ongoing collaboration of the Texas state fire marshall and the Innocence Project of Texas will proceed to it’s next task: reviewing the first six cases of arson conviction that have been identified as potentially problematic due to their dependance on questionable science. Continue reading

Decision to Grant New Trial in Arson Case Stands

Kristine Bunch, who has spent 16 years of a 60-year sentence in prison after being convicted of murder and arson in the mobile home fire that took her young son, is “a step closer to freedom,” said Rob Warden, Executive Director of the Center on Wrongful Conviction (CWC) at Northwestern Law. On Wednesday, the Indiana Supreme Court denied the prosecution’s request to review an Indiana Court of Appeals decision to reverse and remand the case for a new trial. The Appeals Court’s decision was based in part on new science that has discredited older arson theory utilized in this and other cases.

The defense argued that fuel could not have been used, that other possible causes of the fire were not adequately considered, and that a lab report that was Continue reading

Discredited Arson Theories Open Prison Doors to New World

David Gavitt, 54, is thankful Michigan doesn’t have a death penalty. He’s trying to come to grips with his newfound freedom. Convicted of arson in the fire that took his wife and two daughters, Gavitt spent 16 years in prison and always proclaimed his innocence. Mark Godsey reported on this case earlier here. A follow-up article here updates Gavitt’s efforts to cope with his loss and a world that has changed dramatically.

Gavitt’s conviction was based on expert testimony that has now been discredited. New technology could not find the presence of alleged Continue reading

Important Court of Appeals Ruling Yesterday May Inform Other Arson Appeals

The Indiana Court of Appeals vacation of the arson conviction of Kristine Bunch, who spent 16 years in prison after a mobile home fire killed her young son, will likely be raised in other arson convictions.  More on this case here  and here. The court cited advances in fire science that discredit forensic testimony used in this and many arson cases. Bunch is now presumed innocent. Prosecutors must decide if they will re-try her. The Indiana Attorney General’s office disagrees with the ruling and has 30 days to ask the Court of Appeals to rehear the case or appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court. The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law and former federal prosecutor Ron Safer and his colleagues at Schiff Hardin, who worked pro bono, championed this case.