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Challenging the ‘Science’ of Arson

May 3, 2012 05:47:00 am

By Paul Bieber

Firefighters in Pearl River Louisiana Photo by Steve Wilson, via Flickr

In a precedent-setting decision, a California judge has ruled that a 2000 arson conviction was based on discredited scientific evidence.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Seng, U.S. District Court, Eastern Court of California, declared that “no reasonable jury would have found (George Souliotes) guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” on a charge of arson and triple murder for setting a fire in his rental property that resulted in the death of Michelle Jones and her two young children in 1997.

Seng’s opinion, following a three day evidentiary hearing held in January in Fresno, CA was released April 26.

“Specifically, while arson cannot be ruled out, the parties agree that experts cannot determine whether accident or arson was the more likely cause of the fire, " the judge wrote. “The parties’ experts all agree that they cannot determine the cause and origin of the fire based on the available evidence and record as it exists today, including whether the fire was accidental or the result of ‘arson.’"

“They also have stipulated that many of the factors relied upon by the experts to prove arson— burn patterns, extreme heat of the fire, lack of other fuel— are now known not to be indicators of arson.”

The decision now paves the way for Souliotes, 71, who is currently serving a sentence of life without parole at Salinas Valley State Prison, outside Soledad, CA, to have his federal writ of habeas corpus petition heard “on its merits.”

His case now moves to the district court, which will consider his underlying constitutional claims. His petition had previously been dismissed by the district court because it had been filed five days late.

But the ruling also carries wider national implications for similar cases elsewhere that have been decided on the basis of now-discredited forensic evidence that has led to identifying accidental or undetermined fires as arson.

For decades, arson cases have been prosecuted based on forensic evidence presented in court as irrefutable science that in fact has either never been tested or already proven to be unreliable.

EDITOR’S NOTE: for more information on this issue, see the April 3, 2012 TCR Viewpoint “Arson and Junk Science” by Paul Bieber.

Souliotes’ conviction was based on an eye-witness statement shown at the evidentiary hearing to be utterly unreliable, arson evidence that is now recognized by experts as “junk science,” and a laboratory analysis which showed that a chemical compound found on the living room floor of
the fire building, a medium petroleum distillate (MPD) believed to be an ignitable liquid, was of the same general chemical class as an MPD chemical compound found on Souliotes’ shoes.

New improvements in the laboratory analysis now prove that the two samples were not the same chemical and did not have a common source.

Judge Seng’s scathing 99-page opinion debunks each area of the state’s evidence, and opens an opportunity to discuss an alleged ethics violation on the part of the state’s expert witness, John DeHaan.

Paul Bieber is a criminal defense investigator for the San Mateo County (CA) Private Defender Program and the director of The Arson Research Project. His blog and more information about the research project can be found at www.Thearsonproject.org. He welcomes comments from readers.

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