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Arson Cases: Is your client getting burnt?

April 01 2011

Forensic Science Interpreting The Evidence

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Fire Investigation

A teenager is charged with arson with intent to endanger life, but had they arrested the wrong person?  You would think something like this would not happen often, yet in four years we have seen five arson cases where the evidence, on close analysis, actually pointed to somebody else.

Take our teenager:  caught on CCTV using a pub toilet and then a ‘regular’ at the pub went in afterwards and discovered a fire.  There was no question it was arson, but where was the statement from the man who found this fire, and why was he in this small toilet area for 19 seconds when, according to the Crown, there was a fire burning inside it?  When a last minute effort was made to find this witness, it turned out he had never been back into the pub since the night of the fire. 

Or the case of the husband whose wife accused him of starting a fire in the kitchen with their daughter upstairs.  Why did his account of that night match the fire evidence but the statement of the wife did not?  And why did she fail to show up at Court to give evidence?

Then there was the Iraqi who, although a victim of a hate crime, ended up being accused of setting fire to his flat simply because evidence of a break-in was overlooked.  Careful fire scene examination revealed soot patterns which showed a ground floor window had been ajar at the time of the fire and fingerprint “burglar marks” on the window itself. 

None of these cases made it to trial but are only a subset of many poor investigations we have seen including others where accidental causes had not been properly excluded or where issues of intent or recklessness had not been fairly addressed. 

The reality is that fire investigation in the UK is suffering more and more from budgetary cuts and lack of critical thinking.  Forensic scientists that used to be routinely involved in fire investigation are either no longer available or are not asked to attend, samples from fires are no longer sent for accelerant analysis (sometimes they are not even collected), documentation of scenes can lack important information and, overall, more and more cases are being brought without scientific investigation.  If you have a dispute about the cause of a fire, don’t rely on the man paid to put fires out - instruct a forensic scientist experienced in fire investigation to assess the evidence. 

If you have an arson case and would like an informal chat about it, please call Dave Schudel or Jenny Gray on 0191 332 4999. 

Author

David Schudel

Dr David Schudel
BSc(Hons), PhD, CChem, MRSC, CFI

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