Flawed Arson Cases Aren’t Just a Texas Problem

He was an alcoholic who fought often with his wife. He wasn’t always the best father, but when his house caught fire, he tried desperately to save his children still trapped inside. He would later be charged—wrongly, it seems—with murdering his kids, by setting fire to his own house, and sent to death row.

And experts would later say that the fire was in fact accidental and that he had been wrongly convicted by flawed arson evidence.

His name is Daniel Dougherty, and he’s currently sitting on death row in Pennsylvania. His lawyers are trying to overturn the conviction before Pennsylvania executes a potentially innocent man.

If Dougherty’s case sounds familiar, it should. It bears quite the similarity to the infamous case of Cameron Todd Willingham. (Willingham, of course, is the North Texas man executed in 2004 for starting the fire that killed this three kids. Background here.)

CNN is the latest news outlet to examine the Dougherty case and compare it to Willingham. (Hat tip to Steve Hall on this.) From yesterday’s CNN story:

“Like Willingham, Dougherty has maintained his innocence from the start. He is trying to prove he isn’t responsible for the flames that engulfed his house and that he is also the victim of flawed arson science.”

Some of the best known fire scientists in the country—including John Lentini and Gerald Hurst, who both studied the Willingham case—have examined the Dougherty fire and concluded that the evidence of arson is simply junk science.

The fire occurred in 1985, six years before Willingham’s house burned, and back when fire investigation was still in the dark ages. Investigators claimed they found three points of origin (which would point toward an intentionally set fire). But, like Willingham’s case, the Dougherty fire went to flashover stage—in which a whole room or house bursts into flames. After flashover, it’s nearly impossible to determine the cause of a fire (you certainly couldn’t pick out three points of origin). Flashover can also make an accidental fire look very much like arson.

Prosecutors in Philadelphia insist that Dougherty is guilty (ah, my hometown does me proud).

Dougherty’s case has some interesting differences from Willingham’s. Though investigators thought the blaze was arson, they didn’t charge Dougherty in 1985. He wasn’t arrested until 1999, after his ex-wife claimed that Dougherty had confessed to her that he started the fire with gasoline. That seems unlikely. No traces of gasoline were found at the scene. (It’s worth noting that Dougherty and his ex-wife were involved in a child-custody battle at the time of her accusation.)

The only other testimony against Dougherty came from—and you knew this was coming—jailhouse informants who claimed that Dougherty confessed to them. (Willingham supposedly confessed to an jailhouse informant too, a claim that later fell apart.)

Of course, the other major difference is timing. Experts have challenged the seemingly flawed evidence in Dougherty’s case well before his execution (he doesn’t have a date yet). Willingham wasn’t so lucky.

Meanwhile, the Texas Forensic Science Commission will release its final report on Willingham’s case next month. I’ll be very interested to see that document.

It could bring new attention to the cases of many other Texans wrongly convicted of arson, a topic I’ve written a lot about in the past year.

But this isn’t just a Texas problem. As Dougherty’s case shows, it can happen anywhere.

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

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Published at 10:01 pm CST