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With Forum Tonight in DC and Resolutions in Several States, Momentum Builds for Basing Arson Analysis on Solid Science

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Panel of leaders will speak at Georgetown Law tonight, as legislators introduce resolutions in Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma

Contact: Alana Salzberg; asalzberg@innocenceproject.org; 212-364-5983

(NEW YORK, NY; Tuesday, March 23, 2010) – Legislators in several states will introduce resolutions today clarifying that solid science should be used in arson investigations and leaders in the field will speak at a major forum tonight at Georgetown University Law Center. The developments come amid growing recognition that arson investigations nationwide were based on junk science for decades, leading to an unknown number of wrongful convictions.

The issue has become prominent in part because of growing concerns about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a fire at his home that killed his young children. Willingham was convicted in 1992 based largely on the testimony of fire investigators who relied on forensic techniques that have been widely discredited. The National Fire Protection Agency issues directives rooted in science to guide how fires are investigated. One such directive, known as NFPA 921, adopts the scientific method for fire investigations and explicitly debunks the so-called “indicators” of arson (such as the type of cracks in glass at the scene of a fire) that were routinely used by fire investigators for decades but are not rooted in science. NFPA 921 was first published in January 1992 and has been updated several times since then, but not all fire investigators use it routinely (as evidenced by the Willingham case).

Today, legislative resolutions are being introduced in Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma clarifying that NFPA 921 is the minimum standard that should be used in all fire investigations. The resolutions also make it clear that the government has an obligation to review arson convictions obtained using evidence that is now known to be unreliable. 

“Junk science was passed down through generations of fire investigators. They were taught to look for indicators of arson that were, in reality, nothing more than folklore. When matters of life and liberty are at stake, we must rely on solid science,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.  “Law enforcement agencies and policymakers should make it clear that they are using the highest scientific standards available, and they should identify past cases that may not have been based on science.”

More than 64,000 fires in the nation were deemed arson in 2007 (the last year for which government statistics are available) including 1,041 in Oklahoma, 381 in Arizona and 158 in Nebraska.

Arson investigation is just one of many areas where forensic techniques are used that may not be rooted in solid science. A year ago, the National Academy of Sciences issued a groundbreaking report finding serious problems in forensic science nationwide, and calling on Congress to create an independent, science-based capacity to stimulate research in this area, set national standards and ensure that those standards are uniformly enforced. For more on the report and efforts to implement its recommendations, visit the Just Science Coalition website.

A panel of experts will speak tonight at Georgetown University Law Center about the state of forensic science and arson investigations, and it will discuss the Willingham case in particular.  The panel will also discuss the need for reform to ensure that the criminal justice system relies on solid science.

Two leading national arson experts who have reviewed the Willingham case will speak: Craig Beyler and John Lentini. Beyler, a renowned expert, was hired by the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the Willingham case as part of a formal investigation. A report he issued to the commission in August 2009 found that there was no scientific basis for determining that the Willingham fire was arson, but the commission has not acted on that report. In October 2009, Texas Governor Rick Perry replaced several commission members just two days before they were to discuss the report and question Beyler about his work, and the commission’s work on the case has been stalled ever since. Lentini led a peer-review report on the Willingham cases commissioned by the Innocence Project; that panel’s report also found no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson. The Innocence Project submitted the report to the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2004, kicking off the formal investigation that is still pending.

Following are logistics for tonight’s event:

What: Panel Discussion: “Bad Science: The Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and the Case for Forensic Reform”

Who: Craig Beyler and John Lentini, nationally renowned fire investigation experts; Stephen Saloom, Policy Director, The Innocence Project; Radley Balko (Moderator) Senior Editor, Reason magazine
                       
Where: Georgetown University Law Center  
McDonough Hall; Hart Auditorium 600 New Jersey Avenue, NW                                                             Washington, DC

When: Tuesday, March 23, 7 p.m.

The event will be webcast live and archived at www.law.georgetown.edu.