Sunday, November 29, 2015

Han Tak Lee: Arson "science": Long-held beliefs about arson science have been debunked after decades of misuse and scores of wrongful convictions; An excellent account of the Han Tak Lee case in the context of the debunking of long-held beliefs about arson science by Mark Hansen, published by the America Bar Association Journal. (Must Must Read. HL);

STORY: Badly Burned: Long-held beliefs about arson science have been debunked after decades of misuse and scores of wrongful convictions,”
GIST: "Slow and painful has been man's progress from magic to law." So began the report and recommendation of a federal magistrate judge last year in the case of Han Tak Lee, a New York man then serving a life sentence in a Pennsylvania prison for the 1989 arson murder of his 20-year-old mentally ill daughter, Ji Yun Lee. That proverb, inscribed at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on a bronze statue of Hsieh-chai, a mythological Chinese beast with the power to discern guilt, serves as a “fitting metaphor for both the progress of the law and the history of this case,” wrote Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Martin C. Carlson of Harrisburg. Carlson describes Lee’s long legal odyssey and the revolution in arson science that has taken place between the time of his 1990 trial and today......... Lee’s is just one of dozens of arson convictions around the country that have come under renewed scrutiny because of outmoded beliefs about how fires start and behave. Since 1989, 31 people have officially been exonerated—at least in part on the basis of new evidence that they did not commit arson, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. But the registry is not all-inclusive. It doesn’t list the names of people like Louis Taylor, freed in 2013 after serving 42 years of a life sentence for a 1970 fire at a Tucson, Arizona, hotel that killed 29 people. Or James Hugney, set free earlier this year after serving nearly 36 years of a life sentence for a 1978 house fire that killed his 16-year-old son. Nor does it include the name of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man executed in 2004 for the 1991 arson murder of his three young daughters in a house fire that at least eight experts have since concluded was probably an accident. And the actual number of people in prison for arson crimes they didn’t commit may be much higher because nobody knows how many individuals have been wrongfully convicted of arson-related offenses based on faulty fire science evidence. Most are indigent and have nobody to take up their cause. And arson convictions, as a rule, are particularly difficult to undo.
Arson cases are not like typical murder or rape cases, where DNA evidence may still exist that not only can establish one’s innocence but also implicate another. In arson cases, evidence is usually consumed in the fire. And a fire investigator can rarely rule out arson as the cause of a blaze, which is often a requirement for overturning a conviction. Lentini, who has compiled a list of 55 cases in which he has been able to help people who have been falsely accused or wrongfully convicted of arson, estimates that there may still be as many as a “few hundred” innocent people in prison for arson-related offenses. “What we see in terms of exonerations,” he says, “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The entire article can be found at:

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