Up in Smoke

By Michael Blanding | Boston Magazine |

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however, investigations — such as an award-winning New Yorker story — have all but declared him innocent, the victim of outdated fire-investigation techniques that relied on hunches and old wives’ tales more than science.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.

  • Ken

    My name is Ken Davis and I lived thru this horrible situation..A few important facts that were missed is that the disiltate found at the scene can be found in countless household items and was collected in a handful of dirt..and the dog asigned to investigate found nothing on any of my clothes or in my home or in my vehicle…lastly, I was already in custody before their investigation as to the cause to the fire was determined

  • Ken Sr.

    God bless you Jimmy Hebshie! You are deserving of your innocence and much more!

  • Ken Sr.

    Perhaps some day my son will also be exonerated and have have his name cleared as well.
    Thank you Michael for a great article and bringing to light the poor (at best) fire investigation by the states fire marshalls office.

  • Ken Sr.

    David Domingos refused to allow our investigator Mike Higgins to “TAKE and TEST” any samples from this scene. It was certainly within the rights of Mike Higgins to do so. Why would Domingos do that? A cover up so no one could dispute his report? Which by the way was the only written document submitted. No notes ever taken, only memory. And in that report Domingos states that the electrical was up to code and no evidence of beading wires however, during the trial pictures were shown him taken by our investigator and he identifies beading wires which IS an indicator of an electrical cause…CLEARLY!! Even an amature investigative student knows that!

  • Ken Sr.

    David Domingos contaminated, compromised and destroyed the scene of the Davis case before our investigator, Mike Higgins could make a professional and logical determination of the cause of this fire. Clearly Domingos had a predetermination in this case. He can’t even follow basic investigation procedures. The states fire marshalls office did a poor job in the Hebshie case as they did in the Davis case. Ever hear of “Kirk’s Fire Investigation Manual?” We have and read it cover to cover. Basic Fire Investigation 101 eludes David Domingos.

  • Ken Sr.

    The State Fire Marshals office headed by David Domingos and the Prosecutor defied and ignored a court order to preserve the scene and all evidence in the Davis case.