September 9th, 2010
In the past few months, three different arson convictions in Massachusetts have been challenged by nationally recognized fire scientists. These scientists point out that certain patterns thought to be present only in intentionally set fires are now known to occur in accidental fires as well.
In 1991, a scientific manual was published that pointed out these misconceptions. Ever since, the number of fires determined to be arson steadily declined in Massachusetts. Between 1984 and 2001, the number of fires ruled arson declined by 70%,while the total number of fires stayed relatively the same.
State Fire Marshall Stephen D. Coan credits this noticeable decrease to better fire science education and increased visibility of law enforcement.
John Lentini, one of the nation’s most prominent fire scientists, says “there were a lot of accidental fires determined to be arson that weren’t. I don’t know any other way to interpret this dramatic decline.”
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, has urged prosecutors to go back and examine their old arson cases. Sheck believes that this obligation arises from knowing about the unreliabitliy of arson science. However, Coan says such reviews would be unnecessary.
One of the cases currently being questioned is the Lowell fire of 1982, for which Victor Rosario is serving a life sentence. NEIP has previously posted a blog detailing the problems with Rosario’s conviction.
Another case is the conviction of James Hebshie in 2001. Hebshie ran a convenience store within an office building in Taunton, Massachusetts. After a fire consumed the whole building, Hebshie was convicted of the crime. Lentini has reviewed Hebshie’s case and believes that the fire investigator got it wrong. He points out that Trooper David Domingos’s determination that the fire started in Hebshie’s store is inconsistent with the fact that the fire was blazing behind the walls on the opposite side of where the fire allegedly started. Lentini states, “The methodology used to determine the [fire’s] origin was outdated.’’
NEIP attorneys worked in conjunction with Hebshie’s private counsel on his motion for a new trial, which is currently awaiting a decision in US District Court.