Fire investigation is the analysis of fire-related incidents. Investigators need to determine whether a fire was accidental or intentional. If an intentional arson fire was set, the investigator’s findings will lead to criminal charges. If the fire resulted in deaths, then a person will be charged with murder. Until recently, arson cases often relied on now widely discredited methods of fire cause analysis. Early fire investigations were based on apprentice based teaching passed down through generations of investigators experienced in fire analysis or firefighting. This knowledge was largely based on observation and intuition, not actual science. Many indicators of an intentional fire (e.g., burn patterns, presence of an accelerant, windown cracking, etc.) were never questioned. The problem with this approach is that it could lead a fire investigator to the wrong conclusion and wrongfully accuse a person. In addition, there were no consistent requirements for what types of science background or educational background an investigator was required to have.
New forms of fire investigation are now based on laboratory science to determine whether the prior myths about the causes of fire are valid. Scientists are now conducting experiements and studying the fire patterns. The findings has shattered dozens of arson myths as the science improves. Many are also pushing for higher standards for arson investigators, such as having a chemistry or physics background Also, in 2000, a publication of the National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921 (“Guide for Fire and Explosive Investigations”), became widely accepted as providing the standards and knowledge needed to be a competent fire investigator.
Innocence projects have reviewed numerous arson convictions and found many of these convictions to be based on the unscientific methods of fire investigators. Investigators have come to their conclusions based on arson “indicators” which are now disputed after laboratory experiments.
A 2012 case from Michigan illlustrates the use of new scientific research in an exoneration. David Lee Gavitt was released on June 5, 2012 after spending 26 years in prison after being convicted of arson and three counts of the first degree murder of his wife and children. His conviction was overturned based on new analysis of the 1985 fire that engulfed Gavitt’s home. The experts concluded that a flashover (a phenomenon where a fire burns to eventually explode and engulf an entire room) occurred. The flashover phenomenon had not yet been discovered in 1985 when the Gavitt’s home caught fire. Moreover, the 1985 forensic fire technician misread reports, and the assertion of the presence of gasoline was wrong. John Lentini, one of the nation’s leading arson scientists, said in an affidavit that the experts “bundled [arson] myths together” and “in light of modern fire science, there is simply not one shred of credible evidence that the fire. . . was intentionally set.”
In Texas, the application of new science was not as well-received. Cameron Todd Willingham was found guilty of the murder of his three daughters in a house fire he allegedly set in 1991 and sentenced to death. Prosecutors insisted Willingham intentionally set fire to his own home in order to kill his three daughters because fire investigators at the time determined the fire was arson. Willingham consistently declared his innocence. Based on expert testimony and a jailhouse informant who said Willingham had confessed, Willingham was found guilty. In 2004, after fire analysis techniques were developed with scientific investigation, nationally recognized expert Gerald Hurst reanalyzed Willingham’s case and determined the prior expert forensic fire testimony was incorrect. State officials did not act on the new reports and Willingham was executed in 2004.
Each year, more arson cases are being re-examined by innocence projects and the application of the new scientific research should lead to more exonerations.