Arson

“In hindsight, it might have been poor science. But it was the science of the day.”

Scary, long-read about “poor” science of arson forensic science: Playing with Fire: How Junk Science Sent Claude Garrett to Prison for Life.

The convictions of Babick, Hugney, Lee and Rosario all relied, at least in part, on the same kinds of burn patterns identified by Special Agent Cooper as telltale signs of arson in 1993. The fire investigative community has since acknowledged such flaws in its old methodology and, although it was slow to do so, has revised its literature and practices. Yet within the criminal justice system, even as the same junk science reappears over and over again in wrongful convictions, there has been no systemic reinvestigation of old arson cases.

TV crime dramas have unfortunately caused too much credence be given generally to forensic experts:

Recent experiments have yielded troubling results. In one 2005 test, ATF researchers asked 53 professional fire investigators to pinpoint the origin of a series of post-flashover fires. Only three were able to do so accurately — most drew false conclusions based on burn patterns. In 2011, a test conducted by  the California-based Arson Research Project asked professional fire investigators to assess 12 post-flashover burn patterns and distinguish between those that involved a liquid accelerant and those that did not. In reality, there is no way to tell the difference based on visual evidence alone. Yet out of 33 investigators, only three responded that such a conclusion could not be determined based on this evidence.

I once had an expert, on the witness stand, state that she had never made a mistake nor had she called her colleagues conclusions into doubt. State forensic scientists, although an independent agency from “law enforcement,” fall into a pro-prosecution bias.

In a subsequent report, the Arson Research Project warned that between their subjective methodology and close identification with law enforcement, fire investigators are “uniquely positioned” to be susceptible to the affects of cognitive bias — in which one’s perception is colored by preexisting knowledge or assumptions.

Scariest thought.

“In hindsight,” Fulton said, this “might have been poor science. But it was the science of the day.”

What forensic “most sophisticated science of today” will be viewed as poor science in 20 to 30 years? How many convictions will be obtained and prison sentences imposed with such “poor science.”