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IPFS News Link • Criminal Justice System

The Changing Forensic Science Of Arson Is Freeing Innocent Convicts

• Francie Diep via

A man who spent 42 years in prison walked free yesterday, released because the evidence that he had committed arson was faulty.

Louis C. Taylor had been behind bars since he was 16, after he was convicted of setting a fire in a hotel that killed 29 people. In an agreement with prosecutors, he pled no contest, which means he didn't admit guilt, but he also doesn't contest his charges, which means he can't sue anyone involved in his original prosecution, New York Times reported.

The science of proving arson has changed dramatically over the past 40 years, and Taylor's case isn't the only one to show how previous practices—including outdated practices that continued into recent decades—might have sent innocent people to tragic sentences.

So what was the science of fire before and what's it like now? The New Yorker's reporting on a case that ended in 2004 explained that what were traditionally considered marks of arson actually show up in accidental fires. Things like burn patterns near the floor, V-shaped marks on walls, and glass windows cracked in dense patterns were once considered certain signs of the use of some kind of lighter fluid to induce burning.

In 1990, an experiment done in an abandoned house showed that a fire set on a couch without any accelerating fluid left the same marks. Another study showed that nearly all so-called fire experts tested didn't correctly identify where a test fire started.