In the interest of showing my hand, you should probably know that I am an opponent of the death penalty, and I found the link to this article in an email from Death Penalty Focus (a group opposed to the death penalty).  The article, “Trial by Fire,” is by David Grann, dated September 7 of this year, and is found in the New Yorker.  It’s admittedly a very long article, so many of you may not want to view it.  It details the circumstances of the lives involved, and the questions raised about all the evidence:  witness testimony that changed after what was first thought to be an accidental fire killing a man’s children was ruled murder by an arson investigator, the testamony of a jailhouse snitch, and an arson investigator who seems not to have been very scientific in his investigation.  As a quick sample, part of the writeup around the arson investigator’s conclusions follows:

Vasquez and Fogg had cited as proof of arson the fact that the front door’s aluminum threshold had melted. “The only thing that can cause that to react is an accelerant,” Vasquez said. Hurst was incredulous. A natural-wood fire can reach temperatures as high as two thousand degrees Fahrenheit—far hotter than the melting point for aluminum alloys, which ranges from a thousand to twelve hundred degrees. And, like many other investigators, Vasquez and Fogg mistakenly assumed that wood charring beneath the aluminum threshold was evidence that, as Vasquez put it, “a liquid accelerant flowed underneath and burned.” Hurst had conducted myriad experiments showing that such charring was caused simply by the aluminum conducting so much heat. In fact, when liquid accelerant is poured under a threshold a fire will extinguish, because of a lack of oxygen. (Other scientists had reached the same conclusion.) “Liquid accelerants can no more burn under an aluminum threshold than can grease burn in a skillet even with a loose-fitting lid,” Hurst declared in his report on the Willingham case.

Hurst then examined Fogg and Vasquez’s claim that the “brown stains” on Willingham’s front porch were evidence of “liquid accelerant,” which had not had time to soak into the concrete. Hurst had previously performed a test in his garage, in which he poured charcoal-lighter fluid on the concrete floor, and lit it. When the fire went out, there were no brown stains, only smudges of soot. Hurst had run the same experiment many times, with different kinds of liquid accelerants, and the result was always the same. Brown stains were common in fires; they were usually composed of rust or gunk from charred debris that had mixed with water from fire hoses.

If you’d like to see more, you can find the whole article here.

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