Over the past decade or so, arson investigation has come under greater scrutiny. The most well-known case is that of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for arson-murder despite the emergence of strong post-conviction evidence that the fire was not intentionally set.
Now, the Associated Press reports that a Texas fire review panel has flagged two arson cases where fire investigators were mistaken in saying the fires were intentionally set. The panel was created in 2013 by the Texas State Fire Marshal’s Office to review older convictions for potential problems. In addition, the Innocence Project of Texas referred cases to the panel.
The first case identified is the arson-murder conviction of Ed Graf. Graf was convicted in 1986 of setting a fire in Waco, Texas that killed his two stepsons. The AP reports that: “Graf was convicted of putting his two young stepsons in a shed and setting the building on fire. Investigators at the time who examined photos determined that charring was deepest near the shed entrance and on the doors. They said the charring and other patterns suggested a quick fire sparked by an accelerant such as lighter fluid. Fire scientists now say those patterns alone aren’t conclusive.”
Graf’s conviction has been overturned but he remains in prison pending a retrial. Prosecutors admit that the original fire investigation evidence is not longer valid but say other evidence will prove his guilt.
The second case is the arson murder conviction of Douglas Boyington for 1988 fire at a Houston, TX apartment building. The AP reports that panel found “that the Pasadena fire investigator who used fire patterns to declare the blaze intentional was mistaken. The only lab sample in the investigation did not find any flammable liquids, and the file overall was missing key documentation…” Boyington has not filed to reverse his conviction.
The panel intends to review six more cases by the end of the year. Fire Marshal Chris Connealy said that “[t]hese are older cases and the times were different, but nevertheless, their findings can’t be supported by the standards of today and quite frankly, they should have been concerned back then.”
Hopefully the actions of the Texas fire review panel will convince other jurisdictions to accept the new arson fire investigation findings and take a look at past convictions. This week, the Northern California Innocence Project finally secured the release of George Souliotes, who had been convicted of arson and triple murder and was wrongfully incarcerated for 16 years. In 2012, the federal court ruled that his conviction was the result of faulty fire science. However, the prosecutor decided to retry Souliotes until a plea bargain deal set him free.
The California Innocence Project is currently working on the case of Joann Parks, who has served 19 years in prison after being convicted of arson-murder. CIP convened a panel of fire science experts who all concluded that the original investigation contained several errors and the fire was accidental rather than intentionally set. We are hoping that a court will agree with us or that Governor Brown will grant her clemency.