- If any of these findings were used to identify arson in your case, you should conduct further research and investigation: pour patterns, crazed glass, melted metal thresholds, burn marks under doorways, chipping of concrete, alligatoring or blistering of burned wood, or the point of origin being where the most damage occurred. The Discover Magazine article, Seven Myths About Arson, explains why these phenomena are frequently misinterpreted.
- Records to collect: 911, police, firefighters, state fire marshal and dog, public water works, insurance agent, insurance investigator, claims adjuster, EMT, wrecker driver, landfill operator, store records from purchase of accelerant, etc.
- Motions to file: Motion to Suppress (search warrant issue?), Motion to Preserve all Physical Evidence, Motion to Preserve to Preserve the Fire Scene.
Reports and Publications
- Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Evidence (OSAC) is developing documentary standards for each forensic discipline. Standards under consideration as well as approved standards are available in the OSAC Registry.
This 2012 report by Paul Bieber of the Arson Research Project finds that cognitive bias is found in the field of fire investigation. Makes recommendations for how to minimize these biases.
- Habeas Relief From Bad Science: Does Federal Habeas Corpus Provide Relief for Prisoners Possibly Convicted on Misunderstood Fire Science?
by Marc Price Wolf, Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology (2009). Describes the shift in methodology and foundational principles that the field of fire investigation has undergone recently and discusses how habeas corpus relief can be utilized in arson cases.
This New Yorker article by David Grann provides and in depth investigation of the flaws in the Cameron Todd Willingham case.
This article by Paul Bieber appeared in the 2013 CACJ publication. Bieber looks at the reliability of fire investigation and the validity of techniques including identification of the area or areas of origin.
This 1997 study by FEMA and the US Fire Administration found that ventilation and flashover may change or move patterns making correct interpretation of the pattern more difficult. Flashover was found in a majority of test fires and did obscure patterns including patterns from ignitable liquids.
2006 book by John Lentini on appropriate techniques for fire scene investigations and chemical analysis of fire debris. Highlights frequent errors in fire investigation, the history of fire investigation and how the profession has evolved.
2012 DOJ publication by Arnaud Trouve’ and Thomas Minnich. This publication explains the Burning Item Database which describes the burning characteristics of common household and office items.
2012 DOJ publication by James G. Quintiere, Justin T. Warden, Stephen M. Tamburello, and Thomas E. Minnich that addresses the principles of spontaneous ignition and its potential role as the cause and origin of a fire.
2012 DOJ publication by Marc L. Janssens that investigates how to estimate the burning rate of upholstered furniture and how to express the uncertainty of this prediction.
The National Fire Protection Association publishes this manual which is the standard of care in fire investigation. This guide can be viewed for free on the NFPA website which is an excellent way to become familiar with the standards; however, if you wish to download or print it, you must purchase a copy. Email Sarah Rackley Olson if you would like to borrow a copy from the NCIDS Forensics Library or if you need a list of cases where this manual was accepted by courts as the standard of care. The Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) for Forensic Science approved the NFPA for inclusion in the OSAC Registry in 2016. The OSAC Registry serves as a trusted repository of high-quality, science-based standards and guidelines for forensic practice.
2000 NIJ publication written and approved by the Technical Working Group on Fire/Arson Scene Investigation. Includes recommendations about preserving the scene, interviewing witnesses, documentation, and evidence processing.
This 2009 NIJ publication describes recommended practices for the collection and preservation of evidence at fire scenes. This guide may provide areas of cross examination in cases where the recommended policies were not followed.
See pp. 170-173 for the National Research Counsel’s assessment of the analysis of explosives evidence and fire debris
The American Association for the Advancement of Science produced this July 2017 report that assesses what aspects of fire investigation are well founded and science and where gaps exist in knowledge. The full report is available for free download. A “plain language” summary is also available for download.
2012 DOJ publication by Richard J. Roby, Ph.D. and Jamie McAllister, Ph.D. that looks at the physical characteristics of energized and non-energized wires subjected to various types of fire exposures.
From the Blog
- AAAS Report on Fire Investigation, 7/31/2017Attorneys who are handling cases involving arson allegations should be aware of the Forensic Science Assessments: A Quality and Gap Analysis – Fire Investigation publication that was released this month (July 2017). The report was produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The report looks at the discipline of fire investigations and …
- Fire Investigation Publications Available, 8/15/2012The National Institute of Justice has made available the following reports that address various techniques used in fire investigations. These reports may be useful to attorneys handling cases were arson is alleged. Each report attempts to document best practices for investigating specific aspects of fires. Forensic Investigation Techniques for Inspecting Electrical Conductors Involved in Fire …
- Improving Arson Investigations, 1/26/2012Discover Magazine recently published two articles about how recent scientific investigation has challenged the traditional principles and methodology of fire investigation. Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials? explains how these developments have occurred and Seven Myths About Arson debunks seven fire scene findings that have been used in numerous cases as …
John Lentini article containing important principles for investigating arson evidence.
Fall 2020 law review article by John Lentini addressing how to defend someone accused of arson.
- Evidence on Fire: North Carolina Law Review Article on the Admissibility of Fire-Science Evidence in Criminal Cases
Valena E. Beety et. al, Evidence on Fire, 97 N.C. L. Rev. 483, 516 (March 2019)
- Spark of Truth: Can Science Bring Justice to Arson Trials?, Discover Magazine
This October 2011, Discover Magazine article by Douglas Starr explains how the science of fire investigation has evolved in recent years and discusses why certain findings that have traditionally been interpreted as evidence of arson have been debunked. This article is an excellent reference for attorneys who are seeking additional information about fire investigation or are issue-spotting in their cases.
- Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS): In Scientific Evidence, Even ‘Gold Standard’ Techniques Have Limitations
by Joanna Gin and Edward Imwinkelreid. UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper, available for free download. Like nuclear DNA testing, GC/MS analysis has important limitations. Courts should not assume it is a nearly infallible technique. When GC/MS is used in drug testing, the court must inquire as to the mode of analysis: full scan, selective ion reliance, or selective ion monitoring. When GC/MS is employed to identify ignitable liquids in arson investigations, the court should inquire as to the condition of the sample tested: Has it been subjected to weathering, microbial degradation, or pyrolysis?
This webinar is being offered by the National Association of Public Defense on Oct. 6, 2020.
Proper litigation that involves a fire case usually includes a fire origin and cause expert. There are standards and guidelines that the fire expert is expected to follow. This includes, but not limited to proper investigation, documentation, report writing and testimony.
This presentation provides a basic understanding of fire cause analysis and the detection of respect to resolving defensive criminal litigation issues involving fire related cases.
A representative case study will be presented that illustrates the application of these tools.
Mr. Fennell serves as a Senior Investigator, who is an experienced public/private fire investigator and a criminal/civil defense expert with a demonstrated history of working in the fire protection, insurance and fire and explosion forensics industry. He has conducted investigations for numerous insurance clients and government entities to determine the origin and cause of fire and explosion incidents and other assigned investigative activities. Mr. Fennell has directed technical reviews on forensic investigation projects, collaborated with attorneys, investigators, vendors and clients to assure the best results possible throughout the investigation and litigation process.
Mr. Fennell is a Certified Fire Investigator (IAAI-CFI) with the International Association of Arson Investigators and is a Licensed Private Investigator throughout the Midwest. He has an undergraduate degree in Fire Science and a graduate degree from Columbia Southern University. Mr. Fennell has testified and been qualified as an expert witness in court proceedings and depositions involving forensic investigations on multiple occasions. He also participates in pro-bono criminal cases for those who have been wrongly convicted of arson related crimes.
Has several online training modules which give introductory information, but should not replace in-depth research of the issues.
Free or low-cost software tools that may be of assistance in understanding forensic evidence disciplines of digital forensics, arson investigation, DNA, death investigation, and more.
The National Forensic Science Technology Center created this website to explain in simplified terms the principles of each type of forensic analysis and how the analysis is performed. Topics include DNA, digital evidence, fingerprints, firearms, trace evidence, blood stains, and more.
The NC chapter of the IAAI. Find information about relevant NC case law, local training, and membership.
An association of more than 5,000 fire investigation professionals. The website has some information about trainings and standards, but most of the material is available only to members.
- The National Center for Forensic Science at the University of Central Florida has tested over 600 commercial products and compiled information about their molecular composition in an online database.
This Frontline documentary investigates the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man who was executed in Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting the fire that killed his three young daughters. Prior to his execution, reports were submitted to Texas officials raising serious doubts about the science used to determine that the fire was arson.
Focuses on standards and guidelines related to the investigation, analyses and interpretation of crime scenes where arson or use of explosives is suspected. This OSAC has replaced what was the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosions.
This criminal justice research project has a mission of examining the reliability of evidence used in the investigation and prosecution of arson and identifying convictions obtained based on unreliable evidence.
John Lentini compiled case information on these wrongful convictions based on questionable laboratory analysis.
754 F.Supp. 2d 89 (2010). This opinion by Judge Nancy Gertner is a must-read regarding standards of representation in arson cases. The opinion provides useful information on Daubert hearings, cause and origin testimony, burn patterns, canine evidence and laboratory analysis.
Motions and Briefs
Sample discovery motion from murder, AWDWIKISI, and arson case.
Arson in the News
- Powerful keyword warrants face new challenge in deadly arson case, by Corin Faife, The Verge, 7/1/2022
- Fire Scientists Testify in Support of Claude Garrett’s Bid for Freedom, by Liliana Segura, The Intercept, 4/16/2022
- A flawed investigation left Jason Lively behind bars for 14 years for a fire he didn’t set. He’s not alone., by Rachel Chason, Washington Post, 10/22/2020
- Forensic Anthropologists Provide Fire Investigation Training to Federal, State, Local Agencies, Forensic Magazine, 4/7/2020
- Fire scientists say the arson case against Claude Garrett was fatally flawed. Will anyone listen? (TN), by Liliana Segura, The Intercept, 2/24/2019
- Junk Arson Science Sent Claude Garrett to Prison for Murder 25 Years Ago. Will Tennessee Release Him?, by Liliana Segura, The Intercept, 10/5/2018
- The Weakest Link Standard, by Andrew Cohen, The Marshall Project, 8/8/2017
- AAAS Report Points Out Flaws in Forensic Fire Science, Offers Suggestions for Improvement, by Laura French, Forensic Magazine, 7/21/2017
- Stuart W. Bayne, Oak Ridge, TN
- Combustion Science & Engineering Inc, Columbia, MD
- John DeHaan, Ph.D., Vallejo, CA
- John G. Donan, Jr., Louisville, KY
- Greg Gorbett, Ph.D., Richmond, KY
- Sal M. Hamdi-Pacha, Naperville, IL
- Patrick M. Kennedy, Sarasota, FL
- Rod Knowles, New Bern, NC
- Bernard “Sandy” Kromenacker, Fuquay-Varina, NC
- Steve Langham, Morehead City, NC
- John Lentini, Islamorada, FL
- William (Bill) Tobin, Lake Anna, VA
- Thomas Wenzel, MS, PE, Raleigh, NC