Fire Chief’s Testimony Ruled Admissible in Arson Case Despite Concession He’s Unqualified to Determine Cause of All Fires

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A defendant sought to have his arson conviction overturned, arguing that the justice presiding at his trial committed a reversible error in permitting one of the state’s witnesses to give opinion testimony. In State v. Barnett (Case No. 1984 Me. LEXIS 784), the defendant claimed that a fire chief from the responding fire department should not have been permitted to testify that, while investigating the origin of a fire at the defendant’s home, he called in the state fire marshal’s office to assist because he thought the fire was “suspicious.” The defendant contended that the chief’s testimony contained an expert opinion and therefore violated the court’s earlier ruling that the chief was not competent to testify as an expert.

Regarding his credentials, the fire chief testified that he served as a firefighter for 18 years and that he had been involved in investigating fires while serving in the Air Force, while working for multiple fire departments and while working for his own consulting firm. The fire chief further testified that, although he felt qualified to determine most of the obvious causes of fires and to know when further investigation was required, he was not qualified as an expert to pinpoint the cause of all fires.

The court held that given the fire chief’s substantial background in arson investigation the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing him to testify as he did. Regarding the chief’s concession that he felt unqualified to identify the cause of all fires, the court held that this concession did not affect his ability to identify evidence related to the cause of a fire. Moreover, the court held that the fact that the fire chief disclaimed his ability to testify as an expert did not prevent the trial court from permitting him to do so.

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