Saturday, December 09, 2006

Bad Science, Bad Convictions, Bad Justice

JusticeAP Wire | 12/09/2006 | Science casts doubt on arson convictions Just because "the facts" used to convict someone were bogus is no reason to assume they are innocent. Or so says the great state of PA. Bad forensic science has probably convicted many people of arson and murder. The fact that those same "facts" are no longer used - because they aren't facts - doesn't matter to the Criminal Injustice System.
Up until the 1990s, this is what fire investigators were taught:

_ Fires always burn up, not down.

_ Fires that burn very fast are fueled by accelerants; "normal" fires burn slowly.

_ Arsons fueled by accelerants burn hotter than "normal" fires.

_ The clues to arson are clear. Burn holes on the floor indicate multiple points of origin. Finely cracked glass (called "crazed glass") proves a hotter-than-normal fire. So does the collapse of the springs in bedding or furniture, and the appearance of large blisters on charred wood, known as "alligatoring."

Firefighters and investigators arrived at these conclusions through decades of observation. But those beliefs had never been given close scientific scrutiny, until an effort that began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s.

"There were a lot of rules of thumb, but very little scientific understanding," said Jonathan Barnett, a professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a leader in the investigation of the World Trade Center collapse.

Once researchers began to apply the scientific method to beliefs about fire, they fell apart.
How many people were wrongfully convicted? No one knows and the criminal justice system doesn't seem to care.

The story follows the fate of a Korean man, Han Tak Lee, convicted on this shoddy evidence in 1990. That and the fact that as a Korean he did not react the way American investigators thought he should have. The fact that people in different cultures react differently under stress never occurred to them.

So bad science, prejudice against a different culture and bad representation aren't enough to even get this guy a new trial.... A trial that would no doubt show he was a victim of an accident, not an arsonist. Lee is still in prison.

Then there is the case of man executed in Texas based on faulty science.
Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas after courts there refused to consider his claims of innocence. A panel of experts hired by The Innocence Project, known for its work using DNA to expose wrongful convictions, concluded that the fire that killed Willingham's children was accidental.

It's a nightmare, where a defendant's truthful account is held up as lies because the court's accepted expert is scientifically wrong.
Anybody want to defend the death penalty here?

It would be nice to review these old cases, but the Criminal Injustice system is not really interested in justice. Just like pro football, the won/loss record is what matters. That innocent lives have been destroyed (or ended) just isn't worth spending time or money on. (The DA in Han Tak Lee case wouldn't even take the time to return a phone call.)

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