My regular readers will know that I am disgusted and disappointed with the vast number of men (and women) who have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, and for wrongful convictions based on junk science. I have tackled the now discredited theory that hair found at the scene of a crime is foolproof evidence of guilt, if it can be linked to a suspect, and the notion that bite marks can provide reliable evidence upon which a conviction can be founded.
To add to the list of flawed scientific conclusions is evidence of arson that we now know to be false. There are far too many examples of wrongful convictions based on testimony that a fire was not accidental but a deliberate criminal act.
One of the more recent cases involves the conviction of Han Tak Lee who was sentenced to life imprisonment in Pennsylvania for the 1989 arson murder of his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter, Ji Yun Lee. Mr. Lee was released from prison in 2014 after the report and recommendations of Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson of Harrisburg Pennsylvania was handed down.
Judge Carlson held that the arson evidence proffered by the prosecution some 25 years ago, while readily accepted in 1990, had been thoroughly debunked after two decades of research in the cause and origin of fires. What is as troubling as the wrongful conviction was the Crown’s decision to appeal Mr. Lee’s release, although they were not successful. It concerns me that prosecutors in these cases rarely accept judicial findings that the evidence they presented was flawed. These prosecutors seem to forget their role is to seek justice, not merely to convict.
Mr. Lee finally caught a break when renowned fire scientist, John Lentini, a 40-year veteran of fire science, heard about his case and offered to assist his lawyers for free, although Mr. Lentini received appropriate compensation for his expert testimony as the local American-Korean community had raised enough funds to cover Mr. Lee’s costs. Lentini said that prosecutors submitted every fire science myth that was available, calling it the worst case of junk arson science he had ever seen.
The tragedy of junk science is the wrongful imprisonment of innocent people. The American National Registry of Exonerations reports that since 1989 31 people in the United States have been exonerated for arson crimes. But the Registry does not record all of the travesties. For example, Louis Taylor served 42-years in prison for allegedly setting a hotel fire in Tucson Arizona that killed 29 people. And James Hugney was set free this year after 36-years of imprisonment for a 1978 house fire that killed his 16-year-old son.
But if it could get worse, it does. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas in 2004 for the alleged arson murder in 1991 of this three young daughters. Eight experts have now concluded that the house fire was probably accidental. It wasn’t a crime at all.