Up in Smoke
AS MORGAN FREEMAN’S CHARACTER tells us in the film The Shawshank Redemption, “everybody’s innocent” in prison — either they didn’t do the crime, or, “Lawyer fucked me.” But Hebshie is not the only person convicted of arson in recent years who has proclaimed his innocence. Even as Hebshie’s case was winding its way through the courts, a death-row inmate in Texas named Cameron Todd Willingham continued to insist that he did not set the 1991 house fire that killed his three children. His lawyer submitted a petition questioning the evidence in January 2004, but that was too late to stay his execution, which occurred just a month later. Since Willingham was put to death, however, investigations — such as an award-winning New Yorker story — have all but declared him innocent, the victim of outdated fire-investigation techniques that relied on hunches and old wives’ tales more than science.
“We didn’t have very good techniques back then,” says John Lentini, who has investigated more than 2,000 fires and whose research largely inspired the case for Willingham’s exoneration. “There were all these rules of thumb you can find in the literature at the National Fire Academy that are just wrong.”
He reached that conclusion back in 1990, when prosecutors contacted him for help in a suspected arson in Jacksonville, Florida. At the time, Lentini still believed what most arson investigators did: that certain burn patterns could only come from an accelerant — meaning that if you encountered those patterns, you likely had an arson on your hands. To prove it, Lentini went to the extravagant length of attempting to re-create the Jacksonville fire without gasoline in a condemned house two doors down from the original. He expected the attempt to be futile, but the results shocked him. “Damned if the house didn’t burn exactly how the defendant said it burned,” he says. “That was my epiphany. As I looked at more and more cases, I saw there were pretty widespread incorrect determinations.” And it turned out that many other signs that supposedly signified accelerants used in arsons — charring between floorboards, melted bedsprings, a phenomenon known as “crazed glass” — were also red herrings. Even the “V” patterns investigators rely on to point to the source of a fire can be false alarms.
From the beginning, fire investigators were skeptical, even hostile, when it came to Lentini’s conclusions. Minds didn’t really change until tests conducted by ATF agents between 2005 and 2007 showed that when relying on burn patterns alone, trained investigators were no better at determining the origins of fires than if they had simply guessed. In the past five years, more than a dozen arson convictions have been overturned based on post-trial reviews of evidence — a fraction of the hundreds of people Lentini believes are still wrongly imprisoned. So when a lawyer working on Hebshie’s appeal sent Lentini the trial transcript in 2007, he was happy to review it. Very quickly, he found serious flaws in the prosecution’s case.