In December 2015, four men convicted of murder and arson in two completely unrelated cases were exonerated.
In Virginia, in 1989, Davey Reedy was convicted of deliberately setting his house on fire. His two children died in the fire. At his trial for murder and arson, fire science experts testified about evidence that they said proved that Reedy committed arson.
In New York, in 1981, Raymond Mora, Amaury Villalobos, and William Vasquez were convicted of deliberately setting a fire that caused the 1980 death of a young mother and her five children. At their trials, experts testified that they fire was intentionally set.
When modern fire science experts finally reviewed the cases, they conclusively agreed that the fire “science” used to convict all four men was invalid. Faulty. Incorrect.
And that the so-called arson was not arson.
Small comfort for each of the men who had been convicted. Reedy served over twenty years in prison for killing his two children. Villalobos and Vasquez, who went blind in prison due to untreated glaucoma, each served over thirty years in prison; Mora was only 8 years into his life sentence when he died in prison in 1989.
Each man lost decades in prison, serving time for crimes they did not commit.
For crimes that were not in fact crimes.
And these recent exonerations are just a sampling of cases involving convictions based on bad fire science.
Take David Lee Gavitt, who spent 26 years in a Michigan prison for the 1985 killing of his wife and baby girls in a blaze that was erroneously labeled arson. Decades later, the fire was ruled an accident; Gavitt was exonerated in 2014.
Cameron Todd Willingham was not so lucky. Willingham was executed in Texas for the arson-murder of his three children. Scientists agree now that the “evidence” of arson cited by fire experts at the time was just junk science. He died proclaiming his innocence.
Advances in fire science have revealed that factors once thought to prove a fire was intentionally started also are present when fires are the accidental. This has prompted the re-examination of some older arson convictions from around the country.
And that is good news.
Because while it is unspeakably awful to be wrongly convicted of a crime, it’s got to be that much worse to be wrongly convicted of a tragic event that was never a crime in the first place.