Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Claude Garrett: Tennessee: Powerful article by Liliana Segura caled "Playing with Fire: How junk science sent Claude Garrett to prison for life. (Must, Must Read: HL); The Intercept.

POST: "Playing with fire," by Liliana Segura, published by "The Intercept" on February 24, 2015;  "Liliana Segura is a journalist and editor with a longtime focus on prisons, prisoners, and the failings and excesses of the U.S. criminal justice system—from wrongful convictions to the death penalty. She covered these and other issues most recently as an editor at The Nation, where she edited a number of award-winning stories. Previously she was a senior editor at AlterNet, where she was in charge of civil liberties coverage during the early days of Obama’s presidency. She has appeared on CNN International, MSNBC, DemocracyNow! and several other news outlets. Her writing has been reprinted in numerous places, from prison publications to The Best American Legal Writing to, most recently, the collection Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You. Liliana is on the board of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the Applied Research Center, a U.S. racial justice think tank. She lives in Brooklyn."

GIST: "The first person exonerated for arson murder, according to the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions, was Ray Girdler Jr. in Arizona, in December 1991 — two months before the Hopewell fire. Girdler had been convicted of burning his wife and child to death in their trailer park home in 1981. He swore he was innocent, but his behavior the night of the fire had been bizarre. As firefighters battled the blaze, Girdler had gone to his neighbor and asked for a beer, which he drank on the couch with no sign of emotion. Yet 10 years later, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Advances in fire science have wrought a stunning turnabout, providing explanations for the fire that suddenly seem to justify Girdler’s version of events.” Today, 23 years after the fire in Hopewell, Claude Garrett, too, maintains his innocence — and there are a number of people who are convinced he is telling the truth. Chief among them is a veteran Tennessee fire investigator who insists the conviction was a miscarriage of justice — “and there are others besides Claude in jail for things they did not intentionally do.” Indeed, the same advances in fire analysis that exonerated Girdler more than 20 years ago in Arizona have continued to expose fires once believed to be intentional or “incendiary” as most likely accidental. Numerous people have been freed from prison after spending years behind bars for arson crimes that were never crimes at all. Garrett’s case contains hallmarks of such wrongful convictions — pervasive myths that guided arson investigations for decades, which still haunt the criminal justice system. In the summer of 1992, seismic changes were taking place in the field of arson investigation.  Most famous among wrongful arson convictions is the Texas case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three young daughters in a fire and put to death in 2004. In The New Yorker, investigative journalist David Grann described in dramatic detail how, days before Willingham’s execution, a renowned fire scientist named Gerald Hurst rushed to show the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that the fire in his case had almost certainly been an accident. With evidence of prosecutorial misconduct emerging after Willingham’s death, today it is perhaps the most widely accepted example of a wrongful execution in the modern death penalty era. Garrett’s case has a number of striking parallels with Willingham’s. The house fires took place just two months apart, in working-class neighborhoods. Like Garrett, Willingham drank too much and had an explosive temper. Like Garrett, Willingham, too, was described as hysterical the morning of the fire by witnesses who would later change their minds, saying “things were not as they seemed.” And, like Garrett, Willingham’s claims of innocence were undermined by his criminal record and bad reputation. In Willingham’s case, prosecutors pointed to his tattoos and heavy metal posters as proof that he had morbid — even satanic — tendencies.
Most significantly, as both men awaited trial in the summer of 1992, seismic changes were taking place in the field of arson investigation. Based on new research into fire behavior, experts were questioning longstanding techniques for determining the origin and cause of a fire. Classic arson “indicators” were revealed to be no such thing. The investigators in both Willingham’s and Garrett’s cases relied on longstanding fallacies that were just beginning to be exposed. Among the most prevalent false indicators were “burn patterns” like the ones found in the homes of both Willingham and Garrett. For decades, fire investigators called such marks “pour” patterns, based on the belief that a liquid accelerant had been spilled wherever they appeared, in order “to create a very hot and fast burning fire,” as Kenneth Porter would observe. But this scenario was a myth. It was rooted in ignorance of a phenomenon now known as “flashover” — the point at which radiant heat building up in a room causes a space and its contents to combust. Or as some fire experts put it, the moment “a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.” As researchers would discover, fires that reach flashover (or “post-flashover” fires) often leave such so-called pour marks behind. Similarly, the V-pattern once believed to reveal a fire’s point of origin was also found to be a false indicator — and a common feature of post-flashover fires.

The entire post can be  found at:


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