Arson Charges Thrown out Decades Old Science Debunked in Court

Thanks to all the hit crime dramas and docu-dramas of recent years, forensic science has suddenly been thrust into mainstream consciousness. DNA evidence in particular has emerged as a way for police to close the books on cold cases stretching back decades. But criminal defendants in Morristown should be aware that while prosecutors have new technology with which to seek a conviction, sometimes technology can be used to clear one’s reputation as well.

In a neighboring state, a man was convicted almost 25 years ago on arson charges in a fire that killed his 20-year-old daughter. The two were staying at a cabin when a fire broke out. While the defendant escaped, the girl did not. During his criminal trial, the prosecution argued (based on then-current understandings of arson) that the abnormally hot fire, as well as certain reactions in the wood and glass, signaled that an accelerant had been used in the fire. The defendant maintained that the fire was a tragic accident.

He was convicted at that time, but two years ago a court agreed to allow a re-examination of the evidence as a result of developments in arson science in past decades. Recently a magistrate judge ruled that the arguments put forward during that trial are now understood to be “little more than superstition” and the theories about arson at the time have been largely debunked.

The case raises an important point about property crimes defense. When the prosecution’s case rests on scientific techniques used in an investigation, the validity of those techniques may be called into question. It’s not even necessary to debunk them completely, as happened in the above-referenced matter. For criminal defense purposes, it’s just necessary to establish reasonable doubt in their accuracy.

Morristown residents facing theft charges or other property crimes charges may feel that forensic science has forged an airtight case against them. But a criminal defense professional will know when and how to effectively challenge those methods in court.

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