DEATH OF A GREAT IDEA

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.

SIX DANGEROUS MYTHS ABOUT ARSON

For many years fire investigators believed that they could use certain “burn indicators” to show that a fire was purposely-set instead of accidental. As a result, many people were sent to jail for arsons they never committed. The field has been modernized in recent years: arson investigations are more scientific than ever before. Nonetheless, several myths endure “proving” cases of arson – myths that send the innocent to prison:

THE MYTH OF CSI

Click here to see my opinion piece in The Boston Globe about the myth and reality of our nation’s CSI labs. Cited by The Atlantic as one of its “5 Best Wednesday Columns” here.

FIVE CRIME-RELATED HOT-BUTTON ISSUES IN THE 1890s THAT ARE STILL HOT TODAY

The forensic pioneers in The Killer of Little Shepherds confronted issues that could easily have jumped from today’s headlines:

MORE CSI CONTROVERSY

My hometown newspaper The Boston Globe reports on a controversy over possible resume-fudging at the state medical examiner’s office. Sadly, this isn’t first first allegation of wrongdoing at the state lab. Last year Ulysses Rodriguez Charles was freed and awarded $3.25 million in damages after spending 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of raping three women. His attorneys charged that authorities withheld evidence that DNA found in semen at the crime scene was not his.

CSI GONE ROGUE

In my previous posting I wrote about CSI labs that produced wrongful convictions because of sloppy procedures, outdated equipment and an unconscious bias toward the police. There’s a subset of these cases, though: Investigators who produced results so outrageously wrong that they appear to have done so on purpose – in essence, framing the accused.

CSI GONE WRONG

We all know that the CSI television shows bear little resemblance to reality. Real-life medical examiners don’t go into the field, don’t confront and intimidate suspects, don’t comfort grieving relatives, don’t carry guns…and don’t wear designer clothes to the office. They don’t wrap up their cases in an hour. And they don’t solve every case.