House damaged by fire

Expert Challenges Evidence Supporting Arson Conviction

Written on Thursday, February 9th, 2017 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: Expert Opinions

William Amor was charged with causing a death by arson in a 1995 fire. A jury found him guilty in 1997. Amor has been in prison for the last 19 years. He has always contended that he did not purposely set the fire that killed his mother-in-law.

Amor is seeking a new trial. In an attempt to persuade a judge that he was convicted on the basis of unreliable evidence, Amor has presented expert testimony that the fire was started accidentally. The prosecution has countered with expert testimony that challenges the conclusions reached by Amor’s arson expert.

Amor’s Trial

Amor’s wife, Tina, told arson investigators in 1995 that she dropped her cigarette while she was smoking in a recliner. She could not find the cigarette but assumed that it was no longer burning. Tina later went to a movie with Amor, while her mother remained in the house.

The fire occurred in Naperville, Illinois. The Naperville police arrested Amor and held him in jail for two weeks. After an interrogation that lasted 15 hours, an exhausted Amor confessed to setting the fire so that Tina could collect insurance money. He later recanted that confession, but it was used against him at his trial.

At the trial, a fire investigator for the Naperville Fire Department testified that the fire started between the recliner and a nearby glass door. The investigator based that opinion on “fire pattern analysis” and the presence of a single V-pattern near the swivel chair.

The investigator testified that the fire was deliberately set. However, it appears that he arrived at that conclusion because he wanted to corroborate Amor’s confession. Before Amor gave his incriminating statement to the police, fire investigators said that the fire’s origin was undetermined.

Subsequent Proceedings

The Innocence Project of Illinois began to investigate Amor’s case in 2012. Their investigation was initially stymied by the state’s attorney’s office, which resisted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by claiming to be an agency in the judicial branch of government, to which FOIA does not apply. The investigation began to move forward after a judge made the obvious ruling that prosecutors belong to the executive branch of government, not the judiciary.

The DuPage County state’s attorney said “his office doesn’t believe in open access to case files.” That makes sense when a case is still pending, because access to evidence is governed by rules of discovery. After a case is closed, however, public access to information is an important safeguard to assure that prosecutors are not trying to cover up their misconduct. The prosecutor’s position — that Amor may have lied about how he started the fire but didn’t lie about starting the fire — makes so little sense that the need for open access to the prosecution’s case file seems obvious.

Amor’s Expert Witness

Doug Carpenter, an expert with Combustion Science and Engineering Inc. of Maryland, testified in support of Amor’s motion for a new trial. Amor’s confession stated that he set the fire by dropping a lit cigarette onto newspapers soaked with vodka. Carpenter told the court that it is impossible to start a fire in the way that Amor described.

Carpenter also testified that the fire investigation techniques used in 1995 have since been discredited. He concluded that the original investigators “relied upon misapplication of the scientific method, as well as scientifically unreliable myths and misconceptions that had permeated the fire investigation community for years prior to the time of their investigation and testimony.”

Carpenter suggested that advances in fire science, when applied to the evidence in Amor’s case, point to Tina’s smoldering cigarette in the recliner as the most likely cause of the fire.

Prosecution’s Expert Witness

John Golder, a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, testified for the prosecution. He said that the damage was not consistent with a fire started by a smoldering cigarette. He concluded that a flame from some other source must have started the fire.

Golder agreed, however, that it was not possible to use vodka to set a fire with a burning cigarette. He also conceded that a laboratory analysis failed to find any ignitable liquid that could have been used to start the fire.

Golder’s report suggested that the fire was probably set deliberately but probably not by Amor. Golder viewed Tina as a more likely suspect, although he was open to the possibility that Armor was an accomplice.

The Science of Arson Investigation

According to one expert observer, “fire pattern analysis” has been discredited when the fire burns past a flashover point. A flashover occurs when most of the combustible material in a room starts on fire at roughly the same time. According to the expert, some studies show that “the accuracy rate of determining a fire’s area of origin in a post-flashover fire was between 6 and 10%.”

Carpenter criticizes outmoded arson investigation techniques as “junk science.” He says that fire investigators resisted using scientifically acceptable techniques until the early 2000s.

Wrongful convictions have resulted from adherence to the “junk science” of outmoded fire investigation techniques. Frontline provided extensive coverage of doubts surrounding the arson murder conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham. Frontline calls Willingham “the most prominent case of a person who was convicted and executed for a crime he may not have committed.” Gerald Hurst, a leading arson investigator, concluded that the house fire Willingham was accused of starting was not arson. Hurst also said in a 2010 interview that “95 percent of fire investigators get it wrong.”

Frontline also called attention to several cases of arson-related murder convictions that were called into question by advances in fire science. Two people in Texas, Ernest Ray Willis and Sonia Cacy, were exonerated after new investigations established that the fires they were accused of setting started accidentally. Willis had been on death row for 17 years at the time of his exoneration while Cacy had been serving a sentence of 99 years.

The prevalence of wrongful (or questionable) convictions should alert criminal defense attorneys to the need to hire their own expert witnesses in an arson prosecution. Prosecutors who are concerned about finding the truth should also be suspicious of government experts who do not follow currently accepted standards for fire investigation.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

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