Sunday, May 9, 2010


"If you survive a fatal fire, you've got a very good chance of being charged with setting it," said John Lentini, one of the nation's leading fire experts. If just 5 percent of the nation's half-a-million yearly structure fires are suspicious, Lentini said, then that means 25,000 chances to mistakenly charge someone with arson. "And if they [prove a crime took place] with bad evidence, and the jury believes that it's a set fire, many times there is no doubt about who did it," he said.

ABC NEWS 20/20; Reporters Jay Schadler and Thomas Berman;

BACKGROUND: (Wikipedia); Cameron Todd Willingham (January 9, 1968 – February 17, 2004), born in Carter County, Oklahoma, was sentenced to death by the state of Texas for murdering his three daughters—two year old Amber Louise Kuykendall, and one year old twins Karmon Diane Willingham and Kameron Marie Willingham— by setting his house on fire. The fire occurred on December 23, 1991 in Corsicana, Texas. Lighter fluid was kept on the front porch of Willingham’s house as evidenced by a melted container found there. Some of this fluid may have entered the front doorway of the house carried along by fire hose water. It was alleged this fluid was deliberately poured to start the fire and that Willingham chose this entrance way so as to impede rescue attempts. The prosecution also used other arson theories that have since been brought into question. In addition to the arson evidence, a jailhouse informant claimed Willingham confessed that he set the fire to hide his wife's physical abuse of the girls, although the girls showed no other injuries besides those caused by the fire. Neighbors also testified that Willingham did not try hard enough to save his children. They allege he "crouched down" in his front yard and watched the house burn for a period of time without attempting to enter the home or go to neighbors for help or request they call firefighters. He claimed that he tried to go back into the house but it was "too hot". As firefighters arrived, however, he rushed towards the garage and pushed his car away from the burning building, requesting firefighters do the same rather than put out the fire. After the fire, Willingham showed no emotion at the death of his children and spent the next day sorting through the debris, laughing and playing music. He expressed anger after finding his dartboard burned in the fire. Firefighters and other witnesses found him suspicious of how he reacted during and after the fire. Willingham was charged with murder on January 8, 1992. During his trial in August 1992, he was offered a life term in exchange for a guilty plea, which he turned down insisting he was innocent. After his conviction, he and his wife divorced. She later stated that she believed that Willingham was guilty. Prosecutors alleged this was part of a pattern of behavior intended to rid himself of his children. Willingham had a history of committing crimes, including burglary, grand larceny and car theft. There was also an incident when he beat his pregnant wife over the stomach with a telephone to induce a miscarriage. When asked if he had a final statement, Willingham said: "Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby." However, his final words were directed at his ex-wife, Stacy Willingham. He turned to her and said "I hope you rot in hell, bitch" several times while attempting to extend his middle finger in an obscene gesture. His ex-wife did not show any reaction to this. He was executed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004. Subsequent to that date, persistent questions have been raised as to the accuracy of the forensic evidence used in the conviction, specifically, whether it can be proven that an accelerant (such as the lighter fluid mentioned above) was used to start the fatal fire. Fire investigator Gerald L. Hurst reviewed the case documents including the trial transcriptions and an hour-long videotape of the aftermath of the fire scene. Hurst said, "There's nothing to suggest to any reasonable arson investigator that this was an arson fire. It was just a fire."


PUBLISHER'S NOTE: The ABC News 20/20 show on wrongful convictions due to junk arson "science" aired last night was accompanied by several superb reports on ABC's web-site. The following post is devoted to Kristine Bunch who is serving fourteen years for an arson which is now called impossible.

Harold Levy;


"People who escape fatal fires with their lives may face a tangle of emotions: fear, regret, relief," the May 5, 2010 story by reporters Jay Schindler and Thomas Berman begins, under the heading, " Mom Served 14 Years for Arson Now Called 'Impossible': Kristine Bunch Went to Jail for Killing Her Son With Fire but New Science May Vindicate Her."

"If you survive a fatal fire, you've got a very good chance of being charged with setting it," said John Lentini, one of the nation's leading fire experts," the story continues.

"If just 5 percent of the nation's half-a-million yearly structure fires are suspicious, Lentini said, then that means 25,000 chances to mistakenly charge someone with arson.

"And if they [prove a crime took place] with bad evidence, and the jury believes that it's a set fire, many times there is no doubt about who did it," he said.

Kristine Bunch was convicted by a jury in 1996 of setting a fire in her Indiana trailer that killed her 3-year-old son. She received concurrent sentences of 50 years for arson and 60 years for murder.

"This is a woman who has no prior criminal history ... no arrest record ... no psychiatric history," said Jane Raley, senior staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. "There was nothing here."

Raley is working to get Bunch, 36, a new trial. "There is no motive," Raley said. "Why would someone like Kristine do this?"

Lentini questioned the evidence against Bunch.

"I can turn just about any fire into an arson fire if that's what I want to do," he said.

Arson: Conducting a Fire Test:

We brought Lentini to the Fire Science Program at Eastern Kentucky University, where technicians conduct fire tests in a bunker set up with rooms of ordinary furniture.

Fires are set in the bunker not with gasoline or other flammable liquids but with just a spark, as if from a burning cigarette.

"We are hoping to generate some of the artifacts that people in the past have called evidence of arson," Lentini said.

Among those whom Lentini counts as having believed misguided arson evidence in the past is ... John Lentini.

Twenty years ago, Lentini got a life-changing lesson in arson fires. Back then, he was convinced that a man named Gerald Lewis had killed his pregnant wife and four children by setting a fire with gasoline in Jacksonville, Fla.

"I was scheduled to be deposed the next morning for the prosecution," he recalled. "I was going to help them send Gerald Lewis to Old Sparky [the electric chair]."

But before he testified, Lentini had a chance to test Lewis' claim that the blaze began by accident when his couch caught on fire.

Arson: The 'Lime Street Fire Test':

Lentini's test is now commonly called the "Lime Street Fire Test." To Lentini's surprise, the fire in the test left behind the exact same signs as if it had been started with gasoline, even though none was used.

"It was an awakening," Lentini said.

Which is why Lentini is now driven to bring hard science into what traditionally has been seen as the "art" of fire investigation.

"I think when they said ... 'art,' I think what they meant was luck," Lentini said.

Back at Eastern Kentucky University, investigators began their fire experiments, with cameras and thermal imaging sensors recording every moment.

The tiny couch fire grew steadily as a layer of hot dense smoke formed on the ceiling. The sensors showed how hot it was. Temperatures reached about 1,200 degrees. Soon, blazing hot gas started to descend.

Just minutes after the fire was started, the hot gases suddenly ignited, and the room exploded.

This is a phenomenon known as "flashover."

"Flashover is a transition point where you go from having a fire in a room to a room on fire," Lentini said.

Arson: Burn Patterns and Points of Origin:

But what you see after a fire has exploded into flashover is even more important to our story. Lentini guided us through the ruins after the fire was out.

"If you see a pattern on the couch, that looks like it's where it started," Lentini said. "'Cause there's a 'V' [a V-shaped burn pattern] over there, and there's a 'V' over here. You say, 'Well, that could be two points of origin.'"

The appearance of multiple points of origin in a fire has traditionally been regarded as "slam-dunk" evidence of arson, Lentini said.

It was such a slam-dunk that helped put Bunch in the slammer. During Bunch's trial, the prosecution used photos showing burn patterns as evidence of multiple places of origin.

"That is 100 percent inaccurate," said Raley, who is working for a new trial. "One hundred percent wrong. One hundred percent fiction."

When Bunch was convicted in 1996, Raley said, flashover and the science of arson were not well understood. Bunch has now served 14 years in prison and has no hope of parole for at least 12 years.

The prosecutor in Bunch's case declined our request for an on-camera interview, but he maintained that the jury made the right decision. He said that Bunch's behavior was questionable and that she made many contradictory statements during numerous police interviews. The jury made its decision on matters that go beyond the science alone, he said.

There wasn't much left of Bunch's trailer after fire swept through it, killing her son, Tony, 3, in June 1995. What was left, according to fire investigators at the time, was unmistakable evidence of arson.

"The arson conclusion was made within two hours of the investigators arriving at the trailer," Raley said. "The first investigators arrived around 8 o'clock in the morning. By 10 o'clock in the morning, there had already been a conclusion."

That conclusion was that Bunch had poured accelerant in her son's bedroom, touched off the fire and let him die. "I am never going to stop fighting, never going to stop trying to prove that I didn't do this," Bunch said.

Arson: 'Their Theory Is Impossible':

Prospects for a new trial for Bunch may depend on one woman, Jaime McAllister, an expert in the emerging field of combustion science. McAllister's opinion about the prosecution's original arson case can be summed up in four words.

"Their theory is impossible," she said.

An autopsy report on the little boy's body showed he died with 80 percent carbon monoxide in his blood. That's an impossibly high number, McCallister said, if the fire had been set in his room.

"You couldn't breathe in that amount of carbon monoxide and get to that level of 80 percent before you would die from the heat," McAllister said.

Tony Bunch was dead, she said, long before the flames got to him.

Basic science suggested the fire started in an unventilated place, like in the space between the ceiling and the roof, where there were electrical wires and a malfunctioning light, McAllister said.

A short in the wires could have overheated the ceiling tiles.

"As that smoldering occurs, it produces a lot of products, like soot and carbon monoxide," McAllister said. "And they would start to leak out in the room."

Arson: Wrongful Conviction?

In her theory, little Tony passed out from breathing carbon monoxide. The fire grew. Ceiling tiles broke down and fell. Fed by more oxygen, much thicker, hotter smoke billowed into the room.

"Very quickly, he is going to inhale those products, and he is going to die very quickly from those products," McAllister said.

For Bunch's lawyer, the new toxicology evidence leads to only one conclusion.

"The fire could not have started in the living room, it could not have started in the bedroom," Raley said. "So we know that the fire could not have happened the way the state claims. ... It just can't happen."

But if the fire did not happen as the prosecution claimed it happened, why wouldn't a new trial be guaranteed?

"Well," Raley said with a sigh, "it's always difficult to unravel a wrongful conviction."

Decatur County, Ind., prosecutor William Smith said he believes the "new" science was already rejected by the jury.

He said Raley just wants to substitute her expert's opinions for that of the jury.

The court ruling could come at any time. This first appeal is the least likely to succeed, said Raley, who vows that she is prepared to keep going to higher courts in an effort to get Bunch a new trial."

The story can be found at: