Advances in Fire Science Helps Overturn 1980 Arson and Murder Convictions

A New York Judge recently overturned the arson and felony murder convictions of three men accused of setting a February 7, 1980 fire in a three-story residential building that killed a woman and her five children. The three men were convicted after the building’s owner offered eyewitness testimony implicating them and a local fire marshal presented an analysis at trial that pointed to arson as the cause of the fire. Significantly, the fire marshal supported his fire cause opinion with evidence that the fire originated in two distinct first floor locations due to the severity of damage in those areas. He also testified that the room’s baseboards had burned to the ground and that there was a puddle shape left in the area, both indicating to him that an accelerant had been used.

The conviction review unit at the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, however, agreed to review the evidence supporting the three convictions after the Post-Conviction Innocence Clinic at the New York Law School presented a report from a Florida fire expert indicating that, according to current standards, there was no good evidence that arson actually occurred. According to the expert, “the science of fire dynamics was poorly understood in 1980, and much of what was believed by well-meaning investigators was, unfortunately, false.”

In that regard, the Florida expert stated that by 1992 the National Fire Protection Association was spreading the word about “flashovers,” fires that get so hot that the entire room catches fire, and all available fuel – floors, baseboards – ignite almost at once. After a flashover, a fire may burn more intensely in multiple locations due to better ventilation in those areas and give the appearance of multiple origins. Furthermore, the expert reported that baseboards are often burned in fires that progress beyond flashover and that puddle patterns are also common after flashover.

After reviewing the report, the chief of the conviction review unit advised the court that his office was made aware of “an evolution, perhaps even a revolution, in the study of fire science” and that the fire was in all likelihood accidental and not arson. Armed with information addressing the advances in arson science and additional testimony indicating that the building’s owner had a strong motive to lie when implicating the three men, the court overturned all three of the arson and murder convictions.

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