Arson investigators often use bad or outdated science to convict people, resulting in hundreds if not thousands of innocent people behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials? | Materials Science | DISCOVER Magazine
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A furious orange flame explodes out the window and door. The room has gone from being the scene of a fire to being completely on fire. Everything has ignited—carpet, furniture, combustible vapors. A few minutes later, a crew of firemen move in to extinguish it.
Afterward Gorbett and his colleagues walk through the rubble, take photos of the burned furniture and walls, measure the depth of charring, tabulate the results, and compare them to other trials in the experiment. They are not alone. At laboratories throughout the United States—some large enough to contain a three-story house—researchers have been lighting rooms and houses on fire and analyzing the results with the kind of scientific scrutiny that has upended several deeply entrenched misconceptions about how fires behave. The upheaval is more than academic. For generations, arson inspectors have used outmoded theories to help indict and incarcerate many suspects. But as new science is brought to bear on old cases, it is becoming clear that over the past several decades, dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people have been convicted of arson based on scant research and misguided beliefs. Many of those people are still in jail, hoping that someone will take up their cause.
“A lot of bad science has been applied to arson investigation,” says John Lentini, a renowned fire expert who has given exculpatory testimony in at least 40 arson cases since 2000. His most recent case, now under review, involves a Massachusetts man convicted of arson by Molotov cocktail, even though not a single glass fragment from the supposed bottle bomb was found at the scene.
“I shudder to think how many wrongful convictions there are,” says Richard Roby, president and technical director of Combustion Science and Engineering, a fire-
protection engineering firm based in Columbia, Maryland. Roby has testified for several men charged with arson. One, named Michael Ledford, could not have been
at the scene when the fire that killed his son was allegedly set, according to Roby’s calculations, yet he is now serving a 50-year sentence. “It’s amazing to think how long it takes for basic science to be accepted,” Roby says. “I lose sleep over this every week.”
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