Three men convicted of arson in fatal 1980 Park Slope fire to be cleared after …

22 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Between Guilt and Innocence, an Evolution in Fire Science.

“After a thorough investigation, we’ve concluded that these three men were wrongfully convicted based on weak circumstantial evidence, outdated science and the testimony of a single, wholly unreliable witness who recanted before her death,” said Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson. A statue of a mythological Chinese supernatural beast called Hsieh-Chai, who was believed to have the ability to tell the guilty from the innocent by butting them, stands at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.The two-alarm fire gobbled up the Brooklyn townhouse on Feb. 7, 1980, a night so cold that the firefighters’ water froze as they tried to slow the blaze.

The investigation also found during interviews with the family of landlord Hannah Quick — who initially accused the three men of arson — that she was a known habitual liar with alcohol and drug problems, as The New York Times first reported. Inside 695 Sackett Street in Park Slope, Elizabeth Kinsey, 27, who rented a third-floor apartment, and her five children, ranging in age from 9 months old to 9 years, were killed. Even though we cannot give these men back the decades that they spent in prison, with one tragically dying behind bars, justice requires that we, as prosecutors, do the right thing and clear their names,” said Thompson.

Like the comparisons of bite marks, hair and handwriting, it was a forensic practice that had the authority of white-coat laboratory science but virtually none of its rigor. “People didn’t understand the behavior of fire then,” said John J. But fire science has advanced so much since 1980 that although the marshal’s analysis made sense at the time, experts say that according to current standards, there is no evidence that arson actually occurred. Lentini, the author of “Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation.” His December 2014 report on the Sackett Street fire said the original determination of arson was incorrect. “They saw fire burning at one side of the apartment and at the other side of the apartment, and less burning in the middle,” Mr. That’s just wrong.” Since 1980, he said, fire scientists have come to understand the phenomenon of flashover, in which the gases from the initial point of a fire heat up a room until the entire space ignites. “That’s when you go from a fire in the room to a room on fire,” he said. Because different parts of a room might burn at varying intensities, fire investigators often mistakenly believed there had been two or more places where the fire began, a strong sign of arson.

Lentini wrote. “If today’s standards and knowledge of fire dynamics were applied to this investigation, the results would have been significantly different.” That meant the pursuit of an innocence claim for Mr. Results could not be replicated; there were no acknowledged error rates; often the same people did both the investigations and the laboratory work, meaning that tests were skewed to fit conclusions. Nevertheless, the prosecutor, Nancy Grace, now a television commentator, won a murder conviction by introducing evidence that a trained dog had sniffed accelerants at the scene. There were areas of low burning at the edge of the apartment’s baseboards, which the fire marshal said suggested someone had started the fire there. “Fire can’t travel downward,” he testified at the men’s trial 1981 trial. “Fire travels up.” He also testified that there was a puddle shape left in the foyer’s tiles, and the baseboards had burned down to the ground. Though laboratory tests showed that material recovered from Sackett Street did not have accelerant on it, the defense lawyers never raised that issue at trial.

It had an element of other convictions that had been successfully challenged in Brooklyn: a single eyewitness with a motive to lie who told a shifting story. Bernhard found, the understanding of fire science had changed drastically. “In this particular fire investigation, the fire marshals were basically operating under these myths about fire science — they were using this discredited folklore,” she said in an interview. Lentini, a fire expert, to look at material including building plans, what remained of the Fire Department’s interview notes after redaction, trial testimony, and laboratory, police and fire reports. By 1992, the association and experts were spreading the word about “flashovers,” fires that consumed entire rooms, and that could leave behind evidence that looked like arson even when arson had not occurred.

Fire experts today look carefully at “flashover,” or when a fire gets so hot that the entire room catches fire, and all available fuel — floors, baseboards — ignites almost at once. After flashover, a fire might burn more intensely in a few sites because of better ventilation there — looking as though it originated from multiple locations. Hale, the chief of the Conviction Review Unit, said. “We felt she had a lot of motive to defer the blame for this.” The liability in a case where five children and a mother had died could have been huge for Ms.

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