Friday, February 12, 2010

Fire investigation follow-up

I wanted to respond to some questions asked in response to the fire investigator's Q & A. The questions are bolded, below:

How closely do fire and arson investigators work with the police and the district attorneys?

The investigators, because they are certified peace officers, are kind of like cops with fire investigation training and experience. So they do the majority of the work on an arson case, and don't really bring in the police to do any part of it. I suppose they might use the same technical resources, say for DNA testing, but for a straight arson I've only ever dealt with the fire investigators.

How often do they end up testifying in court?

Not very often! Most cases, be they arson or some other crime, get pled out. This means no trial and so no need for them (or anyone) to testify.

Do jurors give fire and arson inspectors a lot of credibilty, or is that something you have to spend time establishing (like the first question in this interview).

I tried an arson case last year and put two fire investigators on. I have to say, the jury absolutely loved them. I think one was a teacher in a former life, and he really connected with the jurors when he described his role, the scene, and his opinions. Likewise, the other flat out knew what he was talking about. I think they won over a lot of jurors because they didn't act like they knew everything - when they didn't have an answer, they said "I don't know."

Now, it's true with any witness that when they first testify we try to let the jurors see who they are, learn about their background. So when it's a fireman, we make sure the jurors know how many fires they've investigated, how many they've worked on as regular firemen.

*Check back in a couple of hours to see more answers, to a reader's questions about juries.


  1. DAC -- what are your thoughts on recent, and some not so recent, developments in fire investigation and the doubts these might cast on past arson convictions? I'm thinking specifically of the Cameron Todd Willingham case and the "evidence" of arson there. We also had the Ernest Willis case. Both men on death row for arson that most likely wasn't -- both accidental fires that sadly took lives -- in Willingham's case his children's, in Ernest's two elderly women he didn't know. Willingham was taken by the state, but fortunately for Ernest Willis, Rob Owen and other kick ass lawyers stepped in before it was too late.

    We have the benefits of these new theories in fire investigation, but what happens if in a decade or two we find out yet again we're wrong?

  2. I honestly don't know enough about the facts of those cases to comment intelligently, so I won't try. I think the fears you express are true for any case, and perhaps any science. Hopefully as the science gets better, the convictions will be more assured, that goes for arson and everything else.
    I know that the guys I have worked with are very very conscientious and do not make assumptions, they even told me about cases where people had assumed arson and they proved otherwise.
    I think sometimes people assume, when they see these cases, that we as prosecutors and investigators are just out to nail someone, that we decide in every case on someone's guilt and go with it. That has never been my practice, or my experience.
    I definitely understand your point though, but I do want to reassure you that in my jurisdiction and experience, and this will make some people roll their eyes, but we really are interested in the truth. After all, when you convict an innocent man, a guilty one goes free, right?
    I'd also add that from what I've seen in trial, the arson investigators explain their conclusions, and do so in a way that lay people like me can understand. It's a logical process that allows juries to evaluate their testimony. And, of course, defense lawyers are free to cross-examine and to bring in their own experts, which hopefully also addresses your concerns to some degree.


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