When I’m in Cincinnati for talks on Failed Evidence tonight, April 4, at 7:00 pm at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center and tomorrow, April 5, at noon at the University of Cincinnati School of Law, one topic sure to come up is an article from the April 3 New York Times, “Advances in Science of Fire Free a Convict After 42 Years. ” Louis Taylor was serving 28 life sentences for the deaths caused by a fire in a Tucson, Arizona hotel in December of 1970. Taylor, then just 16 years old, was convicted of arson based on faulty forensic science.
Mr. Taylor has been release from prison. He is now 58 years old.
The story highlights the state of arson investigation, past and present.
A few years ago, the National Academy of Sciences turned its attention to the misuse of science in courtrooms, saying that pseudoscientific theories had been used to convict people of crimes they may not have committed. By then, a small group of fire engineers had already begun to discredit many of the assumptions employed in fire investigations, like the practice of using the amount of heat radiated by a fire to assess if an accelerant had been used.
Unlike DNA evidence, which can exonerate one person and sometimes incriminate another, the evidence collected in some arson investigations does not yield precise results. Often much of the evidence has been lost or destroyed. In the case of the hotel fire here, all that is left are photographs, reports and chemical analysis, all of them assembled to prove arson.
As a result, “we can’t definitely say what really caused the fire,” said John J. Lentini, a veteran fire investigator who wrote a report on Mr. Taylor’s case. “But what we can do is discredit the evidence” used to support the charge.
The case recalls the story of the trial and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas, executed in 2004 for the deaths of his children in a fire. Experts call the arson in that case terribly flawed — just as in Mr. Taylor’s case.
The science surrounding investigation is light years ahead of where it used to be, even a decade ago. It’s time that all of the old cases in which verdicts depended on outmoded and discredited methods of arson investigation be re-examined, and if necessary overturned.