In the USA, false evidence in court cases to decide if fires were started intentionally has meant prison for many

Edition 199 of the magazine Polizei Newsletter of last September highlights the scandal which has broken out in the US because of research which shows that some evidence used in court cases involving those suspected of intentionally starting fires has no scientific base and, in any case, cannot beyond doubt determine whether a fire was caused intentionally or not. In some cases, with fires involving deaths being the focus of the trial and, if the verdict was a guilty one, those accused stood to receive a life sentence or even the death penalty, the scandal is an even bigger one.

There are basic causes which had been generally accepted as unequivocal that the fires had been started intentionally:

  1. The existence of certain trends and types of damage in the remains of fires such as accelerants and, for example, petrol. The presence of such remains was considered to be undeniable evidence that the fire was started intentionally. Moreover, in some cases, the absence of accelerants did not protect the accused against a guilty verdict, as it was considered that the product used could have evaporated with time.
  2. An abnormally high temperature of the fire was considered to be unequivocal evidence that the fire had been started intentionally.

As early as the 90s, scientific research showed up such myths associated with investigations into fires. A recent study carried out within the framework of Arson Research Project has shown that the presence of accelerants and the temperature of the fire has no relation with whether or not a fire was, beyond any doubt, started intentionally.

For decades, many people have been sentenced based on these absolute truths which have now been shown to be fallacies. This research has specifically shown that, in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death and executed in Texas in 2004 for starting a fire which caused the death of his three children, the evidence which determined the outcome of his trial had no foundation. At present, in California a judge is about to pass sentence on the case of George Souliotes who received a life sentence in 1997 for starting a fire which caused three deaths, and which has now been shown to be accidental (meanwhile, George Souliotes has spent almost twenty years in prison).

Investigators are convinced that there are many in US prisons who have been found guilty of starting fires when, actually, the fires were totally accidental. It seems inevitable that many of these cases will be reviewed in order to determine whether the sentences were fair or not.

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