It was with hope and pride that the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York announced the formation of the Arson Screening Project in 2008. The purpose of the project would be to review arson cases for the kind of “junk science” that had put unknown numbers of innocent people in jail, and perhaps get some convictions overturned.
Unfortunately, the Arson Screening project died last summer for lack of funds. The project had been supported by the New York-based JEHT foundation (“Justice, Equality, Human Dignity and Tolerance”). But JEHT lost its endowment in Bernie Madoff’s illegal Ponzi scheme and canceled its philanthropic activities. (Madoff is now serving a 150-year jail sentence).
The Project had been reviewing the files of twenty-two prisoners who had hoped to have their convictions re-examined. “We were finding that there were many arson investigators who lacked scientific experience,” said Peter Diaczuk, an adjunct professor at John Jay and one of the Project’s directors. Diacsuk said that the staff was able to provide brief reports to some of the prisoners about scientific inconsistencies in their cases before JEHT collapsed. Since then, for the rest of the prisoners, “it’s as though we didn’t exist.”