Crime scene investigation is rarely like you see it on CSI, and this was certainly the case of arson investigations in decades past. Arson investigation was one of those fields that was built on myths, on practices handed down by the “last guy” who had the job. And unfortunately, those practices were often far from reliable.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission in conjunction with the Innocence Project of Texas has been conducting an “unprecedented” investigation into arson cases of years past. So, far, reports indicate they’ve found at least one case and as many as 26 that could be called into question.
The investigation began on the heels of a 2011 report on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana man who was convicted of setting the fire that killed his three daughters in 1991. He was executed by the state in 2004, though it’s now widely believed he was innocent.
Willingham’s case exposed the lack of science and reliability in Texas arson investigations. It showed that these investigations were largely based off of old practices, practices based in myths or simple untruths.
For example, according to the Austin Statesman, arson investigators would often cite the presence of “pour patterns” on the floor of fire scenes. They would say these patterns were clear evidence that an accelerant had been poured on the ground. But, these patterns have been found to be quite common in all fires, including accidental ones.
“Fire investigation is so science-centric, but fire investigators have a limited science background,” said Texas Fire Marshal Chris Connealy.
The investigation has revealed at least one case where the “myths” of arson were used to gain a conviction rather than science. Many more hang in the balance. The panel is planning to meet in January when the investigation is complete.
In the meantime, Connealy is looking at all fire marshal files in the state to look at other cases where there may be similar issues. Then, they will whittle those down to the murder cases first. He says that because cities often do the fire investigations, the cooperation of the Innocence Project is crucial in uncovering all of the potentially flawed conviction.
This isn’t only a Texas problem, though Texas is the only state undertaking an investigation of this magnitude. The state execution of a potentially innocent man, however, may have served to spur our state to be the first.
Arson is a rare crime, but a very serious one. And arson cases have a lesson in the importance of proper crime investigation. If you’ve been charged with a crime, how the evidence is handled is crucial to the outcome of your case.
Contact our offices today to discuss the charges you face, whether they are drug possession or arson, and how we might be able to help.