Law & Order’ Takes on Arson


Dave Mann

You know the controversy over false arson convictions has truly penetrated the wider culture when it appears on Law & Order.

Last night’s episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit featured the case of a man wrongly accused of setting a fire that killed his family. 

I’ve been writing a lot about arson the past year—specifically how flawed arson evidence has sent innocent people to prison (or the death chamber). See our coverage here.

So this was one Law & Order I’m sorry I missed. But judging from a clip available on the NBC site, they did a pretty good job.

In the show, Sharon Stone plays an assistant DA who comes to suspect that the father she’s prosecuting for murdering his kids is actually innocent. (This seems based on the Cameron Todd Willingham case, though it could be any number of cases.) She seeks out a quirky independent expert—based on some combination of Austin fire expert Gerald Hurst (whom I profiled in this story) and Florida-based expert John Lentini.

An aging fire marshal has ruled the fire an arson based on burn patterns supposedly caused by an accelerant and so-called crazed glass—two of the most infamous pieces of forensic “evidence” that were used for years to convict thousands of defendants and have since been discredited.

(One quibble: Crazed glass has been so thoroughly debunked by now that I doubt any fire investigator, even one using outdated methods, still believes it. But burn patterns and “pour patterns” on the other hand— also debunked in post-flashover fires—are still used to this day in courtrooms.)

Stone’s character and the outside expert stage a test fire to show that an accidental-fire scenario—started without an accelerant—could leave the same burn patterns that were supposedly evidence of arson. This is reminiscent of the Lime Street Fire experiment of 1991—a breakthrough that showed scientists that a phenomenon known as flashover could make accidental fires look very much like intentionally set ones.

More than 700 people are serving time for arson in Texas prisons alone. There’s compelling evidence that at least 250 of them were wrongly convicted. 

In the television show, the prosecutors end up dropping the charges, and the innocent man goes free. In reality, more often than not, the innocent person would have been convicted and sent to prison—and in Willingham’s case, executed—based on shoddy forensics.

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