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It's December twenty third last night, you decorate a Christmas tree with your family. You put your two year old on your shoulder so she could hang your favorite ornament way up high on the tree, your twin babies gazed up at you from the living room floor, taking the scene in with giggles and excited kicks of their little legs. Later on, your wife put the kids to bed.
Then you both stayed up late, finishing the tree and cleaning up in the morning, your wife leaves the house early for some last minute shopping for the girls. The babies hear the door slam and start to cry, as they typically do. You take them out of their cribs, give them each a bottle and put them on the soft play mat on the floor so they can keep each other company, you head back to your room and as you lay down, you hear them coming from across the hall.
You drift off to sleep. You want to sleep long? You wake up to your two year old daughter screaming, Daddy, Daddy! You're groggy, startled, but the terror in her voice snaps you awake, let go blaring alarm and then it hits you. The room is a dense cloud of gray and black, you can barely see you smell charcoal, ash, smoke. Oh, no, your girls get the girls out of the house. It's loud, it sounds like an angry windstorm, the entire house is crackling, popping.
You make your way to the baby's room, then feel around on the floor, groping in the darkness, you think you grab one of the twins, but it's just a baby doll. Your hair is on fire. You stand up and it out and frantically get on the ground again. Then there's a loud crash. Something is falling from somewhere in the house. It must be the caving in a part of the roof or a wall. But you can't see anything.
It's so hot you can't breathe. You need to catch your breath before you pass out. You finally make your way outside to get help. You'll come back for them. You see your neighbor on her front lawn and scream for her to call the fire department. She sees a hysterical man covered in soot and she yells back there on the way. You try to get back inside, breaking the window of the baby's room with the stick you find in the yard.
Flames explode from the opening. Oh, God, you can't get in. You're crying out for your children. Someone, anyone, please help. The fire department finally arrives and they have to hold you back. They find your two year old in the bedroom on the floor, you didn't realize she had been right there, right there, your babies are on the floor of their room where you had left them with their bottles. You'd been so close to finding them, they try to do CPR.
But it's too late. You're escorted away from the house and once the fire is under control. Investigators in protective gear head inside. No sense of urgency anymore. They walk through the remains and disappear into the black and living room where you had spent your last night together as a family. You are dumbfounded they arrest you for arson, murder, this was your family, you would never lay a finger on your children. At your trial, the prosecutors call expert witnesses who tell the jury that the proven science of fire tells the story of how you committed this crime.
You pour lighter fluid, which they refer to as an accelerant under your baby's beds in the hallway by the front door, burn marks seared into the floor indicate where that lighter fluid was puddled on the carpet. They say there's no way you tried to save your girls. If you had, your feet would have been burned to rip stains.
Prove that you poured accelerant up and down the hallway, the melted metal door frame, the shattered glass. It all proves the fire was so unnaturally hot that it produced temperatures that could only have been created by chemicals that you intentionally poured all over your home. Prosecutors argued this, You love heavy metal music, and that indicates that you have a dark side. You have posters on the walls of your home, one of which depicts a grim reaper that proves you're obsessed with death.
You have a tattoo of a skull and snake on your arm. That indicates that you're a violent person, you have psychiatric problems, perhaps a demonic disposition. You couldn't afford to hire a lawyer, so the court appointed you an attorney. E two suspects that you killed your children, he tells you to plead guilty if you do, they'll give you life in prison instead of the death sentence. You can't do this. This was an accident. There was no crime here.
You're not going to confess to killing your three beautiful children. You didn't do anything wrong here. You were convicted and sentenced to death on death row. The events of that day haunt you. You look at the photos of your children, your wife, to remember the man you were, the life you once had. Time seems to stand still on death row, and the whole experience is nothing short of paralyzing. But the date of your execution eventually closes and you write a letter to your parents telling them to never stop fighting to clear your name, even if it's after they put you to death.
The last words of your fellow inmates, the ones who were executed before you. One by one were often apologies. Sometimes they were confessions. But before you're strapped into the gurney and given a lethal injection, you say, I am an innocent person convicted of a crime I did not commit. I've been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do from God's dust. I came and to dust I will return to the Earth shall become my throne.
Your parents scatter your ashes over the graves of your children. The story you just heard is based on the wrongful conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was wrongfully convicted and executed in 2004. I'm Josh Dubin, civil rights and criminal defense attorney and innocent ambassador to the Innocence Project in New York today on wrongful conviction, junk science, we examine arson evidence. You know, we create these podcasts with the aim to educate as well as to inspire action. Now, we'd love to hear from you.
We'd love for other listeners to hear what you've been inspired by when listening to these incredible human stories and what you've been inspired to do. Have you written a letter, talk to a friend or parent about it? Have you donated money or dedicated some of your time? What's your story? Come leave all of us a note in the review section of Apple podcast. Tell us how you've been moved. And and remember, and I truly mean this. No action, no story is too small to share.
What's yours. In 1973, the Nixon administration published a report entitled America Burning, it was all about damage the fires caused in America, both in terms of physical destruction and the billions of dollars spent to repair and rebuild.
But unfortunately, much of what was considered fire science in America burning was merely a set of core assumptions that were never subjected to the rigors of the scientific method that is developed, hypothesis tested, confirm it, reconfirm it and repeat until you know you have something sound and verifiable as a result of this study.
Fire investigators were given a handbook, a guide to reading fire damage like a psychic reads tea leaves in investigator, having learned from this handbook, starts his investigation at the exterior of a burnt down house. He sees a VCI burn on what's left of the walls of the living room. He notes this is the room where the fire started. He walks through the home, keeping an eye out for the telltale signs of arson. First, crazed glass windows shattered into irregular pieces, wood light smoke deposits that indicate a rapid buildup of heat that can only be caused by an accelerant.
Second, alligator garnering large shiny blisters on burnt wood. Fast hot fires produced by accelerants create this pattern. Third, puddle formations and burns that look like drip trails.
These are caused by the spreading of accelerant like gasoline or paint thinner throughout the house before it is intentionally set on fire. The investigator checks all of these signs off the list. He knows this must be arson. It turns out the investigator only had a 50 percent chance of being right at best. Because fire science was built on a foundation of conjecture and best guesses that were never adequately tested and confirmed according to valid scientific principles, what experts and prosecutors had been telling juries for decades about how you can definitively determine that a fire was intentionally set was completely wrong.
In fact, signs that indicated to investigators that they were dealing with arson crazed glass aligator patterns, burn marks indicating dripps or puddles of accelerant or actually the same things left in the wake of an accidental fire. So the evidence that was used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham and so many others was deeply, deeply flawed. It turns out that there was no evidence whatsoever that this had been a fire that was set by Todd Willingham running up and down his home, you know, just before Christmas, spreading accelerant in all the different rooms and down the hallway and killing his three children.
It was clear that this was junk science. And unfortunately, by this point in my career, I was familiar enough with the phenomenon of junk science, not to be surprised. Joining us today to tell us about arson evidence and how it relates to cases like Cameron Todd Willingham is Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project and famed civil rights and criminal defense attorney.
So, Barry, first, thanks for being here and for our listeners. Barry is one of my personal heroes, and I'm just ecstatic that we're able to get you to enlighten us about arson evidence now. You worked to get Cameron Todd Willingham case overturned after he was executed. And this might seem like somewhat of a pointless fight to some people since Mr. Willingham was already put to death in 2004.
But you are fighting for Mr. Wollen, CAMHS final wish for his name to be cleared and him to be declared an innocent man by a court. I think that it's well accepted that he's an innocent man at this point.
But you're also fighting so that the kind of evidence that was used against Mr. Willingham doesn't get used to convict another innocent person. And so to start off, Barry, if some of the clues used in arson investigation are indeed junk science, how did Cameron Todd Willingham get convicted in the first place?
What the fire scientist, the arson investigators in Willingham, what they did in that case, they would go to the scene of a fire and they would look at all these visual cues. And if they saw what was called alligator ring, which was, you know, like the scales of an alligator on wood, if they saw what was known as Cray's glass, that's like a spider type cracking of the glass. If they saw sprawling of concrete, that's like little chips coming off the concrete at the scene of the fire.
If they saw a scouring on the floor pour patterns, they immediately assumed that all of these visual cues meant that somebody had spread accelerant around the house and lit it. And that was the cause of the fire. And they literally said to the jury, we look at the fire, the fire talks to us. The fire doesn't lie. That's very powerful to a jury. So what happened, Josh, is that when we at the Innocence Project saw what happened in the Willingham case, we had just been involved in setting up what's known as the Texas Forensic Science Commission.
They reviewed all the crime scene evidence in the Willingham case and they said what was clear, and that is this is junk science. This had been discredited by national fire protection 921, 10 years ago. The science was completely flawed, unreliable, ridiculous. So even after all of that, the state of Texas still refused to free Cameron Todd Willingham and to show just how flawed this evidence was. There was a man named Ernest Willis who was convicted of a similar crime with similar evidence that was used in the Willingham case.
But while Cameron Todd Willingham was put to death in 2004, Willis was declared innocent that very same year. So how is that possible? At one man, Willingham was executed based on this junk science, while another man, Willis, whose case was very similar, gets to go free.
Ernest Willis went to trial. He had a completely incompetent lawyer who was disbarred for all kinds of reasons. Willis was so upset by the fire that killed family members that he was literally on psychotropic medication in the witness chair. Right. He was lucky because his lawyer was so incompetent. And on his death penalty appeal, he got a patent lawyer from Latham and Watkins in New York who dove into the case and was able to get the federal courts to vacate that conviction.
And when the conviction was remanded on exactly the same evidence, just like the Willingham case, Willis was not only exonerated, there was a prosecutor in Pecos County, Texas, took one look at this and said, oh, my God, this was an accidental fire. This was not an arson murder. And he not only dismissed the case against Ernest Willis, Ernest Willis was compensated as actually innocent by the state of Texas, while within the same time period Cameron Todd Willingham was executed.
It's just really hard to hear this stuff right, because right away this indicates some sort of double standard or at least some confusion within the justice system about what arson of.
And it really means and how much it can be trusted and to be clear, by 2004, there shouldn't have been any confusion about this type of evidence, because in the early 90s, there were two incidents that I'm going to ask you about that really proved that the kind of arson evidence used in the Cameron Todd Willingham case was bogus.
The first was the Lime Street case in nineteen ninety, which was the case of Gerald Wayne Lewis. Mr Lewis was accused of killing his pregnant wife, his sister and his sister's four children by arson. Now, Gerald always maintained his innocence, but it was actually a prosecution expert named John Lentini, who was the moving force and proving Gerald's innocence.
John Lentini was an arson investigator and he went along with a colleague of his, John, to had to investigate an allegation of arson at a home on Lime Street in Jacksonville, Florida. And they examined the crime scene and they were already, by their own admission, to make a recommendation that it was an intentional arson. But they realized that right next to the house that burned down was another house that was abandoned, but it was the same construction. So they rebuilt the house right next door to be identical to the Lime Street house that burned down.
And then they basically put a cigarette on a couch. They began the fire in a way that would be completely accidental. The whole place burned down and they saw all the clues, all the visual clues from the crazed glass aligator burning under furniture, completely compartmentalized fire. They saw all these cues and they knew that it was an accidental fire, not a deliberate one. And so that began to change everything.
So, again, this is very ironic and rare because Lentini is a fire investigator that's working for the prosecution and he's actually trying to prove that this Lime Street case was, in fact, arson and that Gerald Wayne Lewis had actually done it. But he realizes that there were some serious issues with his assumptions because this accidental fire actually resembled an arson and it resembled it in very critical ways. And what was most shocking to me about this was that Lentini saw puddle stains and trail marks that looked identical to what he had been taught in so many other investigators have been taught or the telltale signs of someone dripping gasoline or another accelerant throughout a house.
But that definitely was not the case here. And they knew that because they set the fire themselves with a cigarette. Exactly.
And they'd say, well, that really can't happen unless it's an intentionally set fire. But it turns out with this phenomenon of flashover, which is you get this hot, combustible object in a small space, ordinarily a room. Right. And then it begins to cause this huge burst of heat and fire in that room and the whole place becomes engulfed. So that's what creates the intense heat that arson investigators had hypothesized must come from the deliberate use of accelerants.
It turns out that it could all happen in a completely accidental fire.
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Not all applicants will qualify for the full amount. So Lentini, the investigator, realizes that accidental fires can look just like arson, and he does something that is actually quite remarkable, but it shouldn't be, because whether you're working for the prosecution or the defense, when the science tells you something, you should not have a bias in its application. Right. He doesn't say, oh, this is just some weird coincidence. I'm going to keep working for prosecutors to convict people in arson cases based on this evidence that I now know is clearly faulty.
It's wrong. Instead, he's pretty shocked, appalled by what he sees. And he feels like he's been misled by this evidence for years. Right. And he gets an opportunity to examine a bunch more accidental fires to make sure that his findings in the Lime Street case were consistent with other accidental fires. I don't know if people remember, but these homes on in the hills in Oakland, California, began to burn down, you know, in what was plainly a series of accidental fires.
And after all these homes were burned down, the fire scientists went out and examined each and every one of them. And they realized once again here were plainly accidental fires. But all these visual cues that arson experts had been relying on demonstrated that it was an accident. It was not an intentionally set fire. So take just the crazy glass. That's a simple thing to understand. You know, you look at the glass, it's sort of spider glass.
And that's supposedly an indication of suddenly intense heat that comes from, you know, an accelerant induced fire. In fact, you found crays glass all over in Oakland in the Lime Street fire because crays glass happens when people come to put out the fire and they put cold water on it and the glass cracks, that's how you get crays glass.
So these arson investigators have been testifying for years and years that the reason you see crays glass and it's no pun intended, it's actually a crazy notion that they're testifying to one thing and it turns out to be the exact opposite.
All right. So Crays Glass was caused by the cooling of the glass when they're putting the fire out.
What were some other things that were wrong about? They would say, oh, we're looking at Mattress Springs in a bed or something and they're melted. That can only happen if it's an intentionally set fire. But when they went to the hills of Oakland and looked at these homes, they saw the same thing and the same thing at the Lime Street fire.
I mean, you would think that would be the end of people trying to use this kind of junk science, this kind of false evidence. But that isn't the case.
What is really upsetting is that you see over the next few decades, nonetheless, lots of people who were convicted because they never did scientific validation in the first place.
You actually have to conduct experiments, you have to have hypotheses and you have to prove that they're true instead of just having, you know, really, you know, sort of law enforcement people in lab coats, so to speak, or people that have expertise by way of, quote unquote, experience, going to crime scenes and looking at fire scenes and really coming up with their own hypotheses that were never demonstrated to be true by science. That's what's so shocking about this whole area.
In other words, if you believe all of these different visual cues demonstrate that an accelerant has been used, you should do experiments to prove the point.
Now, Barry, this isn't the case where these investigators were out to harm people. This is just how they were trained.
I have. Some sympathy for a whole group of people who had many of them just high school graduates who were trained in arson investigation, to believe all these different visual cues were a sign of the use of an accelerant and intentionally set fire that was never empirically demonstrated. And yet they were doing it and that's how they made a living. That's true. And they thought that they had expertise. It's it's imagine how horrendous it is to believe as a prosecutor or as a so-called, you know, arson investigator that you were wrong and you destroyed people's lives.
People don't get up in the morning and say, let's do that. Right. But it happens. And it's very hard to admit to it.
All right. So why do you think it is that, you know, generations of experts have all been proven to be wrong on the assumptions they rely on turn out to be incorrect. But there is this unwillingness to change.
Once you have invested yourself in this belief and all these very weighty consequences follow, it's very hard to admit. That you were wrong, even when there's scientific proof that you're wrong. John Lentini and John Dhan and all these various experts, you know, they started off as regular arson investigators that were taught to believe these things, but engaging in real science and doing these experiments, they realized it was all wrong and they had an enormous amount of trouble persuading the forensic science community to stop.
And they're still fighting about it even to this day. I mean, I think that the Willingham case and all these other exonerations have exposed the community to it. And you literally can see fewer arson convictions since that happened. But you're absolutely right. It's it's mystifying. It's so upsetting that it is taking so long to change it.
And meanwhile, these convictions based on this false arson science or this this fire evidence, just keep on coming.
Hardtack Lee, whose daughter who suffered from mental illness, was found literally burnt to death, incinerated in a small community in Pennsylvania. He gets convicted of killing his daughter intentionally in a fire which did not happen. Right.
The case of Hancock Lee is just it's really, really troubling. I mean, here's a guy that spent 15 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. And there's a quote that always stuck with me from an opinion written by a judge during Hardtack Lee's appeal. And it was this, quote, Much of what was presented to Lee's jury as science is now considered to be little more than superstition. And quote, I mean, that's so remarkable, isn't it?
And, you know, again, the fact that this is still used in the face of quotes like that, it's just it's hard to understand. You know, he was granted a new trial and finally exonerated, thankfully, in 2015.
Another was Sonya Casey, who was convicted of burning down a house and killing I guess it was her uncle, Bill Richardson. And it of course, it turned out that Bill Richardson was actually a heavy smoker and had probably fallen asleep with a burning cigarette. But plainly, she did not start this fire or the same kind of junk science was used in that case. And that's the great tragedy. When you look at the arson cases, so many people like Ernest Willis or Cameron Todd Willingham or Hancock Lee, you know, they're all convicted of killing with intentionally set fires, their loved ones.
That to me is, you know, the horrible, horrible irony of these junk science cases.
Now for our listeners. I know, Barry, you know, 20 years and I've seen you get emotional before and passionate about a lot of cases. But I want to go back to the Cameron Todd Willingham case for a moment, because it seems to me that this is one that really stuck with you. And it seems to me like one of the two or three cases that has really haunted you in all your innocence work. How can it not haunt you?
It should haunt everyone in this country. I mean, this is a case that ought to change the way the people look at capital punishment and forensic science. I think we look at we've made a lot of progress, but we still haven't corrected the biggest injustice of all, and that is the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. You see the suffering up to the very, very end and the execution of an innocent man.
How could it not haunt you? There's so much importance attached with the state finally admitting that it was wrong and that an innocent person is executed and that will happen in Texas, it will.
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Something we keep returning back to in this podcast is the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report, which is a report published by Rigorous Scientist that is very critical of forensic sciences like arson investigation.
In fact, the only one that it's not really critical of is DNA. And you've done a lot to try to push the lessons of this report to overturn convictions based on junk science.
Truth is, the 2009 and National Academy of Science Report recommended that there be an independent entity in the federal government that would be dedicated to providing a scientific basis and oversight to all these forensic science disciplines. An independent entity, the National Commission on Forensic Science, was put into place which had independent experts from lots of different scientific communities. When Trump was elected, he abolished the National Commission on Forensic Science.
Look, it's really inspiring to see that despite all that's gone wrong and all that hasn't worked, that you're still hopeful because something else that's so shocking is that this issue about what kind of evidence should be considered, you know, scientific fact, something that can literally determine whether or not someone should live or die based on a crime they may not have committed.
It's all still being treated like a political issue. And you have personal experience with these political barriers, yet you're still hopeful, despite all of the harm that's been done and continues to be done by political officials, by presidents, by judges who, unlike Lentini, refuse to see the light, so to speak.
You know, it becomes this big echo chamber. Junk science is admitted by one court. Right. And all the experts can then testify again and again and again, even though it was never properly validated in the first place. And we've had a lot of that. And judges really have to be rigorous in dealing with it. And the problem with judges is that we all went to law school and not medical school.
The judges really do have to be better in terms of getting into the nuts and bolts of the science, it's intimidating to them, just as it's intimidating to a lot of lawyers. You might be listening to this, wondering what you can do to help. I want every listener to consider that even those who were wrongly convicted and are lucky enough to be released from prison, their lives are just never the same. Let's take the example of Sonya Casey. She's the woman Barry Scheck mentioned who was accused of murdering her uncle by arson.
We know that Miss Casey was innocent because, amongst other evidence, it was later found during the autopsy of her uncle that he most likely died from a heart attack. There was no soot in his lungs, which would have been there if he had, in fact, died in the fire. Instead, there was fluid in his lungs. So the evidence supported the conclusion that he was dead before the fire had even spread. Nevertheless, Casey was sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Sonya Casey was eventually exonerated, but the stain of her wrongful conviction meant that on every job application or when she would try to rent an apartment, she would either have to check a box saying that she had been convicted of a crime or it would be revealed on a background check that made it nearly impossible for her to find work or a place to live. So if you own a business or you're a landlord or you're just in a position to either approve or reject someone for work or a place to live and someone checks the box that they have previously been convicted of a crime, please talk to them, learn about the circumstances of their arrest, the accusations against them, who they are now as a human being.
Perhaps you'll find that they were the victim. Yes. The victim of a wrongful conviction. Or maybe it's just that they've done something in their past and are no longer that person. The great civil rights attorney, Bryan Stevenson, said it best, each one of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavoured, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned. I think we can all learn something from that.
Next week, we'll analyze hair microscopy, the profoundly flawed junk science that attempts to use human hair to accuse and convict people of crimes they did not commit. Wrongful conviction junk science is a production of Loba for Good Podcast's in association with signal company no one expects, thanks to our executive producer Jason Flom and the team at Signal Company No.
One, executive producer Kevin Wallace and senior producers Capricorn Habour and Brett Spangler.
Our music was composed by DJ Ralph. You can follow me on Instagram at Duban. Josh, follow the wrongful conviction podcast on Facebook and on Instagram at wrongful conviction and on Twitter at wrong conviction. For NPR ex.