Saturday, January 25, 2014

Kristine Bunch: Arson "science" case; " Indianapolis Monthly" tells the story of the 16 years she spent in prison trying to prove her innocence - a story which reveals the myths about arson investigations that were putting innocent people in jail. She had been sentenced to serve 60 years behind bars. (Must Read; HL);

POST: "When  will Kristine Bunch be free? Locked away for killing her 3-year-old son, a crime she says she didn't commit, Kristine Bunch spent 16 years in prison fighting to prove her innocence. In 2012 the gavel finally fell in her favor. But true justice has yet to arrive," published by Indianapolis Monthly in the Hanuary 2014 issue.

GIST: "Almost immediately, Ricks gave Kristine her first breakthrough: an article about arson myths that included terms she recognized from her trial transcripts (concrete spalling, alligatoring, V-patterns, pour patterns), indicators that had been used to put her away for 60 years but were no longer considered sure signs of arson. It turned out that a lot had changed in fire investigation since Kristine had gone to prison. Investigators like to say that blazes destroy evidence but leave a lot of clues,  and they thought that because arson bore a unique set of markers—chiefly telltale signs of a flammable substance and multiple points of origin, as in Kristine’s case—they could simply use their eyes to determine a cause. But leading up to the 21st century, experts began to embrace a more scientific understanding of fire. One of the turning points was the Lime Street Fire of Jacksonville, Florida, in 1990. John Lentini, a highly regarded independent fire investigator, was called in to verify a prosecutor’s theory that a man had poured a liquid accelerant on the floor of his house and set it ablaze, leaving several family members to die. The suspect claimed that the fire started accidentally on the sofa and spread so quickly that he was forced to flee. The state pursued the death penalty and wanted Lentini to review the case before going to trial. Lentini decided to try something new: He replicated the accused’s version of events, igniting a sofa sans accelerant in an identical house nearby. The blaze left many of the same arson-esque markers found at the crime scene. The culprit, however, was “flashover,” the moment when a fire becomes so hot that everything in the room, including the air, simultaneously combusts—whoosh. Lentini realized that when a fire, regardless of how it began, continues to burn after flashover, it leaves many of the same markers long associated with arson. The prosecutor dropped the charges. Lentini concluded that fire investigators—who often learned nonscientific techniques from old-timers—had been misreading innocent fires as crimes for decades, and he championed the revision of fire-investigation techniques. Based on rigorous scientific analysis of fire scenes since the mid-1980s, the National Fire Protection Association created protocols (including guidelines that mirrored Lentini’s Lime Street finding about flashover) and in 1992 published a new manual called NFPA 921; The manual was immediately controversial, and the vanguard of the fire-investigation community resisted it. (To wit: At Kristine’s 1996 trial, Brian Frank from the Indiana State Fire Marshal’s office, one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, testified that he had seen NFPA 921 in the office but had never read it.) It took until 2000—four years into Kristine’s imprisonment—for the U.S. Department of Justice to issue a report affirming the manual’s authority, largely quieting its opponents. The call for reform became more urgent in 2004, when Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who had been wrongly convicted of setting fire to his house and killing his three daughters. The new science exonerated him after he died in an electric chair. Some fire investigators continued to discount the science, though, and rely on experience instead. As late as 2009, the National Academy of Sciences admonished those still adhering to old rules of thumb. Many fire investigators still weren’t well-educated on the changes in arson myths when Kristine began following this trail in 2004. She requested a copy of NFPA 921 through an interlibrary loan, but the language was technical and confusing. Then Kristine stumbled onto some help: The wife of a former fire chief was serving a short stint at IWP for allegedly stealing bingo funds. The woman asked her husband for input and relayed explanations of terms and research suggestions to Kristine. A certain piece of evidence from her trial sparked Kristine’s interest: the damning lab report from the ATF, the agency that tested the samples from the trailer. The findings had been a key element in the prosecution’s case against Kristine, supporting the theory of two points of origin and the presence of an accelerant. Forensic chemist William Kinard’s final report had been entered into evidence. But Kristine was curious about the raw data from the tests—gas chromatographs, they were called. For each sample, a machine produced a reading that looks like the choppy line of a heart monitor. An analyst, like Kinard, interprets those lines as indicative of a liquid accelerant or not, and can even discern between gasoline, lighter fluid, kerosene, and other flammable substances. The gas chromatographs wouldn’t mean anything to Kristine, but they couldn’t hurt. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the ATF from the prison law library but never got a response. Ricks, meanwhile, knew that their best chance at PCR was an innocence project, which could afford new investigators. Kristine had already written to several with no luck. IU’s small Wrongful Conviction Clinic, on IUPUI’s campus, turned it down for lack of resources. She didn’t receive a response from Northwestern. She did, however, earn her paralegal certificate in 2005 through a correspondence program, and a fellow inmate suggested she start thinking about law school so she could help other people in her situation—if she ever got out. After all, Kristine had keen instincts. She asked Ricks to contact investigators mentioned in the arson-myth article. To her surprise, one of them, an elite fire-science expert named Richard Roby in Columbia, Maryland, replied in 2006. He offered 10 hours pro bono and assigned one of his young staffers, Jamie McAllister, to the case. It was an encouraging vote of confidence, but McAllister didn’t produce anything conclusive at the time. Ricks knew the court would want to see new evidence—something big, debunking the state’s theory on how the blaze began. The problem was that fresh evidence would require a new investigation, and they couldn’t afford to hire experts. Further complicating matters, they were missing Decatur County’s photos of the alleged crime scene, which any new investigators would want to see. Ricks could acquire them through “discovery”—the process in litigation that requires both the prosecution and defense to share their evidence—but only after filing for PCR. Running out of options, Ricks decided to make her only play for the photos. In December 2006, two years after taking on Kristine’s case, she threw some generic legal issues into a “shotgun” petition for post-conviction relief, and hoped for the best."

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