Posts Tagged ‘fires’

Roanoke man pardoned on arson conviction

ornamentsVirginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has granted an unusual absolute pardon to Davey Reedy, released six years ago after many years of imprisonment on an arson murder conviction after a house fire that killed his two small children. The case is one of dozens in which forensic methods formerly used for evaluating arson have been re-examined as poorly based and unreliable. “According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 38 people have been exonerated before Reedy for arson-related crimes since 1991.” [Washington Post; earlier]

From the Post’s Christmas Day story:

After his release in 2009, he has settled back in the Roanoke area with his family. The day McAuliffe called to tell him of his exoneration, Roberta Bondurant said, he was coordinating a volunteer project.

“He’s at a place and time in his life where he’s at peace with himself,” she said. “It doesn’t help him at all in the time he has left on this planet to hold bitterness for anyone who made a mistake along the way.”

Forensics and evidence roundup

  • Radley Balko begins a four-part series on the flawed science of bite mark analysis [parts one, two with Jim Hood angle]
  • Federal judge Jed Rakoff “quits commission to protest Justice Department forensic science policy” [Washington Post]
  • Disturbing, but, to those familiar with the false-memory literature, not all that surprising: “People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened” [Psychological Science on new research]
  • Exposure of faulty fire forensics leads to another release after long time served [WHP, Harrisburg; James Hugney Sr. “maintained his innocence throughout” nearly 36 years in prison following conviction in burning death of sleeping son]
  • Courts struggle with evidentiary significance of emoji [Julia Greenberg, Wired] Rap music as gang-tie evidence: “The only value it has is to scare the hell out of white juries, and it’s effective” [ABA Journal]
  • Supporters of Brian Peixoto say his Massachusetts conviction typifies problems of shaken baby forensics [Wrongful Conviction News]
  • “Allegations that NYPD cops may have planted evidence, perjured themselves and engaged in cover-ups while investigating gun cases.” [New York Times via Balko; NYDN 2011 flashback]

An execution, ten years after

First a house fire killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three tiny daughters. Then the state of Texas killed him. Mistakes were made, notes the Washington Post. The forensics testimony on accelerants has long since been discredited, and now the jailhouse informant whose words sent Willingham to execution, who has wavered between recanting and not-recanting, has given a recantation with much more circumstantial detail about the lies he says he told on the stand.

Here’s a Texas Monthly article (linked a while back) on the unsettling history of arson forensics over many years, in which the use of accelerants was deduced from dubious evidence in such a way as to shift many fires from the “likely accidental” to the “deliberate” category, with dire legal consequences for family members and others on the scene. Earlier on the Willingham case, including pro-prosecution links, from five years ago. More: Jonathan Adler.

Police and prosecution roundup

  • Cop caught on camera stealing dying motorist’s $3700 and gold crucifix “walked out of courtroom with big smile on face” [Bridgeport; Connecticut Post]
  • Durham, N.C. police officer testifies department would illegally gain access to homes for purposes of search by lying about getting 911 calls [IndyWeek]
  • “California Highway Patrol Seizes Medical Records Of Woman An Officer Was Caught On Tape Beating” [Tim Cushing, TechDirt]
  • Drivers routinely expected to give up otherwise-basic civil liberties in exchange for right to use the roads [Michael Tracey, Vice]
  • Teen sexting prosecutions in Virginia and elsewhere: “We must destroy the children in order to save them” [Radley Balko]
  • Narcotics officers get training credit at tax-funded seminars in how to argue in favor of drug laws [Missouri pro-legalization site via Balko]
  • Back from the ashes: advances in fire and arson forensics cast doubt on earlier convictions [Texas Monthly]

The trouble with Nicholas Kristof, cont’d

The other day the Chicago Tribune documented a longstanding campaign (see Friday link) to get government bodies to adopt standards requiring flameproofing of furniture upholstery, carpets and other household materials. Turns out key actors in that campaign were companies that make the chemicals used in flameproofing, which thereby guaranteed themselves a giant market for their products, as well as cigarette companies that worried that they would face regulatory and legal pressure over fires caused by careless smoking and decided to pursue a strategy of turning the issue into someone else’s problem.

Unfortunately, according to the Tribune series, the supposedly flameproof furnishings 1) aren’t necessarily very good at reducing fire risk and 2) are doused with chemicals that one might not want rubbing off on one’s family and pets. That’s aside from the regulations’ obvious cost in making furnishings more expensive and narrowing consumer choice by excluding producers unable or unwilling to use the chemical treatments. Whether or not you accept the series’ interpretation in all respects — the authors tend to taken an alarmist line, for example, on the chemicals’ environmental dangers — it’s useful as reminder #83,951 that government regulation often is driven by motives quite different from those advertised, and in particular by business lobbies whose interest is frequently squarely opposed to laissez-faire.

On Sunday, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, criticized lately in this space for his views on supposed Big Beer responsibility for Indian reservation alcoholism, addressed the flameproofing story in his column. After reciting the controversy — laying a particular emphasis on chemical alarmism, long a specialty of his — Kristof concludes as follows:

This campaign season, you’ll hear fervent denunciations of “burdensome government regulation.” When you do, think of the other side of the story: your home is filled with toxic flame retardants that serve no higher purpose than enriching three companies. The lesson is that we need not only safer couches but also a political system less distorted by toxic money.

Which affords James Taranto of the WSJ’s “Best of the Web” this response:

The guy is so blinded by ideology that he fails to notice he has just given an example of burdensome government regulation.

May 18 roundup