Fire Investigation

Relevant Case: Joann Parks

Fire investigation is the analysis of fire-related incidents through the use of fire dynamics. When a disastrous fire occurs, investigators must determine where and how the fire started, and whether it was accidental or intentional. If an intentional fire was set, the investigator’s findings could lead to criminal charges. If the fire resulted in deaths, then a person could be charged with murder.

The Old Approach

Prior to 1992, there was not a single uniform guide on how to investigate a fire, and there were no minimum educational requirements for a fire investigator to be deemed competent. Early fire investigations relied on an apprentice-based teaching passed down through generations of investigators experienced in fire analysis. 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, window cracking, etc.) were never questioned, Through accidental findings and scientific research, it became apparent these techniques led to the incorrect conclusions, and many people were wrongfully convicted of arson when a crime did not, in fact, occur.

The New Approach

In 1992, the first publication of the National Fire Protection Association, NFPA 921 (“Guide for Fire and Explosive Investigations”) introduced the use of the scientific method to fire investigations. NFPA 921 was met with great resistance, but by the year of 2000, this document became widely accepted as providing the standards for properly investigating a fire. Through scientific research and experiments, fire scientists are starting to better understand a fire’s behavior in various conditions, including how to read patterns in a post-flashover, ventilation-limited fires. However, error rates are still widely unknown. For these reasons, and in order to avoid wrongful claims of arson, fire investigators are now tasked with using these science-based findings to investigate a fire’s origin and cause. Any claims that there was an accelerant present are now required to be tested in a laboratory before they can be used in the investigator’s analysis. The new research and findings have shattered dozens of arson myths as the science continues to improve. Similarly, NFPA 1033 provides the minimum requirements fire investigator needs to know to be a competent fire investigator.

False Fire Forensics and Wrongful Convictions

Innocence projects have reviewed numerous arson convictions and found many of these convictions to be based on the unscientific methods of fire investigators, whose conclusions were based on arson “indicators.” These indicators are now disputed after laboratory experiments.

A 2012 exoneration from Michigan illustrates how new scientific research can prove a person’s innocence. David Lee Gavitt was convicted of killing his wife and children in a fire that engulfed his house. Gavitt’s conviction was overturned based on a new analysis of the 1985 fire. The new experts concluded that a flashover (a phenomenon where a fire burns to eventually explode and engulf an entire room) occurred. Once flashover occurs, interpreting the fire patterns becomes difficult and often leads to incorrect conclusions about the fire’s origin and cause. Also found n Gavitt’s casewas the improper assertion that an accelerant, gasoline, was found in the house John Lentini, one of the nation’s leading fire 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 the new science was not as well-received. In 1991, a fire erupted in Cameron Todd Willingham’s house which took the lives of his three daughters. Willingham consistently declared his innocence, however, fire investigators and prosecutors insisted Willingham was guilty based on outdated myths regarding the origin and cause of the fire. A jury ultimately convicted Willingham of murder based on the testimony of an expert fire investigator and a questionable jailhouse informant. Willingham was sentenced to death. 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. “Trial By Fire” will be released in May 2019 and will feature Willingham’s story.

California Innocence Project client Joann Parks is another victim of false fire analysis. As the sole survivor of a 1989 house fire that killed her three children, investigators ultimately, and wrongfully, accused her of starting the fire. We know now, through new scientific research, that there are many innocent explanations for how the fire began, and that Joann was convicted for a crime she did not commit.

Each year, more arson cases are being re-examined by innocence projects and the application of the new scientific research has lead to more exonerations.