Scientific advances cloud past arson cases
Scientific advances have produced more solid conclusions about how fires start, but they also have raised questions about arson convictions based on evidence generated by outdated methods, experts say.
Donald Brucker, Allegheny County chief deputy fire marshal, acknowledges that some conclusions he reached while investigating fires a decade ago probably couldn’t be substantiated today.
“Without a doubt, there’s a lot of things that have changed,” said Brucker, who’s investigated fires for 20 years, including the last 13 years for the county.
Nonprofit legal organizations across the country are reexamining and challenging some of those convictions, including those in a 1995 East Hills fire that killed three Pittsburgh firefighters and a 1993 Jeannette fire that killed a woman and her two sons.
The National Fire Protection Association put arson investigations on a more scientific footing in 1996, experts said.
Research has discounted crazing and spalling as evidence of intentionally set fires, said State Police spokesman Sgt. Anthony Manetta. Spalling refers to pits left on a concrete floor, which investigators thought marked where an arsonist poured an accelerant. The pits are more likely to occur from other fire conditions, he said. Crazing is a web of cracks in a piece of glass.
“It used to be thought that was an indication of arson,” he said. Instead, it’s an indication that water, probably from a sprinkler or fire hose, hit the heated glass.
The 2011 edition of the association’s guide includes other advances, such as requiring any soil evidence to be frozen so microbes don’t eat any hydrocarbons left by possible accelerants, he said.
On Jan. 27, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a client of Temple University’s Pennsylvania Innocence Project, who was sentenced to life in prison for arson, deserves a chance to appeal his conviction. The project, which investigates possible wrongful convictions, also is working with lawyers to appeal convictions of Greg Brown Jr., 34, of East Hills, and James Young, 44, of Jeannette, Bluestine said, both of whom are serving life sentences.
A Monroe County jury convicted Han Tak Lee, 76, of Elmhurst, N.Y., of setting a 1989 fire in a Poconos Mountains cabin that killed his daughter, Ji Yun Lee, 20, a fire he always has maintained he never caused.
An investigator maintained that the burn pattern, crazed glass and alligatoring — wood charred into a scale-like pattern — were evidence of a quick, hot fire that would come from arson. Marissa Bluestine, legal director of the project, said they have been proved as unreliable evidence of arson.
An Allegheny County jury convicted Brown in 1997 of arson and three counts of second-degree murder for torching his Bricelyn Street home to help his mother collect insurance money. Fire Capt. Thomas Brooks, 42, and firefighters Patricia Conroy, 43, and Marc Kolenda, 27, died fighting the fire.
Bluestine said a federal agent testified that charred ceiling beams in the basement proved Brown set the fire by pouring a gallon of gasoline on the basement floor.
A defense expert conducted his own test for Brown’s appeal that showed flames from a pool of gasoline couldn’t have reached the beams, Bluestine said. In addition, emergency responders never turned off the natural gas to the house, and an eyewitness reported seeing a blue flame in the basement.
“We don’t know how the fire started, but there were things that didn’t get developed at the trial,” she said.
David Fawcett III, Brown’s appeal lawyer, and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office declined comment.
A jury convicted Young in 1995 of burning down his house, killing his wife, Gina Marie, 26; stepson, Shaun Holden, 3; and son, Joshua, 7 months. Bluestine said questionable evidence includes testimony that an arson dog detected gasoline on several items and a lab report that corroborated the presence of gasoline on some items.
Westmoreland County District Attorney John Peck said he didn’t participate in Young’s prosecution, but his recall is that Young was convicted as much for his behavior as from the scientific evidence. Young refused to break a window so his wife could escape after neighbors urged him to climb up on the porch roof with a hammer.
Brucker said it takes more than one piece of evidence to conclude a fire was intentionally set. Investigators must sift through physical evidence, test it in the lab, interview witnesses and basically assemble surviving pieces of a “gigantic puzzle,” he said.
“There is no simple way to do this,” Brucker said.
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