Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Letitia Smallwood; Pennsylvania; Momentous decision; Judge has overturned her 1973 conviction - and ordered a new trial - citing revolutionary advances in fire science as part of the basis of his decision. PennLive notes that discredited science is fueling a surge in reviews and overturned arson convictions.

STORY:"Letitia Smallwood arson case: Discredited science fueling surge in reviews and overturned conviction," by reporter Ivey DeJesus published by PennLive on  April  20, 2015.

PHOTO CAPTION" "The building after the fatal 1972 fire. A number of businesses were on the first level and there were apartments on the second and third floors."

GIST: "When it comes to advances in fire investigation, it's not so much technology that has changed but the understanding of fire - as well as who is doing the investigating. That's the perspective taken by John Lentini, a Florida-based fire scientist, who has provided expert witness in hundreds of arson cases. "We ask firemen - who are great individuals who run into burning buildings, I  run out of them - we ask them to make sophisticated decisions about physics and chemistry when they haven't had science since high school and probably forgot it." PennLive reached out to Lentini on Monday, just moments after news broke that Cumberland County judge had overturned the 1973 conviction of Letitia Smallwood, citing revolutionary advances in fire science as part of the basis of his decision. She will be granted a new trial. "What's happened is we've come to realize that what we thought we knew about the investigation of fire was wrong, just flat and  demonstratively wrong because the fire investigation was conducted by police and fireme who are not science people," Lentini said. "It's a lot easier to turn scientists into cops than cops into scientists."........"All of science changes," Lentini said. "What we know changes over time. The legal system doesn't like that but they need to adapt. When science shifts, the people that we are paying to keep locked up sometimes deserve a review." Lentini, who last year testified in a high-profile exoneration case based on new fire science, said science typically plays a small part in arson cases. If science is weak, prosecutors will typically, Lentini said, use it only at the end of the trial, concentrating instead on character assassination of the defendant. "By the time they get to the science, the jury doesn't care. They hate the defendant," he said.  "We need to rethink the way we do arson, that is make the state prove it's an arson before they prove the person is guilty." Lentini testified in the appeal case of Han Tak Lee, a South Korean man, was freed in August after 24 years in prison. He had been convicted of setting a fire that killed his daughter in the Pocono Mountains during a religious retreat. Nationwide, officials in about 2,500 conviction cases are reviewing evidence and testimony in light of advances in fire investigation. Lentini said that for years investigators have been providing faulty science in their investigations and testimonies. Everything from describing a fire as a "very hot fire," to their understanding of crazed glass and concrete spalling and the believe that fire burns only up and out.
"Fire investigators didn't know any better," Lentini said. "I'm not saying they were lying but they were giving invalid testimony." Artifacts from accidental fires and fires intentionally set look the same, Lentini said. Yet, the "myths" of arson investigation, he said continue to be used in the legal system "Lots of people  were convicted based on bad science," he said. "An . even bigger number lost their life savings because the insurance company hired a guy who said it was arson and they didn't pay the claim." The court order was issued Monday by Cumberland County Judge Edward Guido. Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed said he intends to appeal this decision to the state Superior Court."

 The entire story can be found at:



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