Saturday, November 18, 2006

Criminal Justice: The Esperanza Fire

[Second of two articles]

In my previous post, I discussed the shameful Ivan Hill case. This case, however, is somewhat better. Prosecutors in Riverside, CA, have charged a suspect in last month's "Esperanza" fire, which killed five firefighters, along with ten other fires. The prosecutor's office says it has "overwhelming evidence" against Raymond Lee Oyler.

Defense counsel, of course, claims Oyler has an "air-tight" alibi for the fire: he was caring for his 7-month-old baby. The alibi is "confirmed" by Oyler's girlfriend and sister (the article is a little ambiguous here, so I am assuming the grilfriend and sister are two people).

The AP article says:

Arsons are challenging to prove because evidence often burns and suspects can be miles away creating an alibi by the time anyone notices flames.

This is true as far as it goes, but it is also misleading. Certainly, a fire -- especially a wildfire like Esperanza -- creates wide-spread destruction, but -- and this is a crucial "but" -- a properly trained, experienced arson investigator can often determine "cause and origin" where the uninitiated eye sees merely chaos. Arson investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and Certified Fire Investigators (through the International Association of Arson Investigators) can have an almost uncanny ability to spot indicators of cause and origin. [As bloggers seem to be held to a much higher standard of disclosure than reporters or White House appointees, I should point out that I am a member of IAAI, but I am not a CFI. Yet.]

At 10 of the fires, investigators recovered remains of incendiary devices: five to seven paper or wood matches wrapped around a cigarette using duct tape or a rubber band. The arsonist lit the cigarette, which slowly burned down until it reached the matches and ignited them, sparking a brush fire. The device allows a time delay of up to 11 minutes that arsonists can use to escape and create an alibi.

Thomas Fee, president of the International Association of Arson Investigators, said the DNA evidence could be key to linking Oyler to the other blazes. That DNA allows prosecutors to focus on the similarities between the cigarette-and-match devices used at the June blazes and the one used at the Esperanza Fire.

The way the incendiary devices were constructed can be used to show that the same person crafted them all — a so-called "arsonist's signature," said Fee, who isn't involved in the Oyler case. The signature can be as subtle as the location of the matches on the cigarette's stem or more obvious, such as the brand of cigarette used, he said.

The description of the 'sets' as given in the article, however, may prove to be a problem. For the layman, "five to seven paper or wood matches wrapped around a cigarette using duct tape or a rubber band" may sound like identical sets, but to a fire investigator, they are as different as night and day: paper matches are not the same as wood matches, nor are duct tape and rubber bands identical. Even a rookie lawyer could wreak havoc if that were the only evidence.

On the other hand, it is likely that either the prosecutor's office released ambiguous information to the press or the reporter -- who probably is not an arson investigator -- did not fully understand the information.

A "signature device" is usually virtually identical from fire to fire. The article mentions the case of former South Pasadena fire investigator John Orr, who as convicted of four counts of murder after a fire at a home improvement warehouse, along with dozens of other fires. Orr's devices consisted of three or four paper matches attached to a Marlboro Light, wrapped in yellow lined paper. Orr used virtually identical devices in almost all of his fires; it was this simularity that helped convict him in (I believe) four separate trials. Of course, the fact that authorities found a manuscript, written by Orr, describing his fires in detail that could only be known to the arsonist, didn't help Orr's defense any. (The history of firefighter arsonists is fascinating, but that is an article for another day). The full story of Orr's descent from respected arson investigator and mentor to convicted murderer is told in Joseph Wambaugh's book, Fire Lover.

At the top of this post, I said that the Oyler case was "better" than the Hill case. It is, but only because the authorities were able to identify and arrest Oyler before he had a chance to start even more fires. Certainly, the fact that five firefighters lost their lives makes Oyler's story anything but pleasant.

Should Oyler be convicted, I would hope that part of the sentence imposed would include psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Serial arsonists are a strange breed, and we know nowhere near as much as we should about these people. Back in December of last year, I wrote about Tookie Williams, founder of the Crips street gang, saying:

I believe that executing people like that serves no useful purpose. In fact, keeping mentally ill murderers alive might actually benefit society, in that -- assuming their cooperation -- medical science might be able to develop treatments that could either restore these people to health, or maybe treat someone else before that person becomes a killer.

The same logic applies to serial arsonists.

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