ABC News has issued a press release on tonight's segment on 20/20, "Burned: 20/20 Investigates Three Alleged Arson Cases with the Help of the Nation's Leading Fire Experts and the Latest Techniques." It airs tonight at 10:00 pm, EDT (9:00 pm, CDT); check your local station for time in your location.
The only thing possibly worse than losing loved ones in a fire would be if you were falsely accused of setting the blaze. Yet, that is what some experts say happens around the country when the wrong fire investigator determines arson based on outdated techniques. Is it what happened to Amanda Kelley? Kelley’s world fell apart on a winter’s day in 2001 when she was charged with arson, accused of setting a fire that engulfed her Alexandria, Louisiana home, killing her three children. She faced the death penalty.
“20/20” takes this case apart, and examines others where people claim someone was falsely charged, convicted or even executed based on bad fire science. Experts involved say what happened to them, could happen to anyone. John Lentini, one of the nation’s leading fire experts says: “If you survive a fatal fire, you’ve got a very good chance of being charged with setting it.” Jay Schadler’s report airs on 20/20 on FRIDAY, MAY 7 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.
Other cases “20/20” investigates include: in Indiana, Kristine Bunch has already been behind bars for 14 years after being convicted of setting her mobile home on fire to kill her child; and in Texas, Curtis Severns is serving 17 years in prison for setting fire to his gun shop, even though no one was killed.
Texas Observer journalist Dave Mann notes the program in his post, "ABC News Investigates Disputed Texas Arson Case."
The ABC News program 20/20 will broadcast a report this Friday night about people wrongly convicted of arson.
The segment—which airs at 9 p.m. central time—will feature the case of Curtis Severns, who was convicted in 2006 of starting a fire in his Plano gun shop. He remains in federal prison in Beaumont for a crime he likely didn’t commit.
The Observer first reported Severns’ case last year as part of our series on false arson convictions. As in other cases, Severns was convicted by what some of the top fire experts in the country now say is flawed forensic evidence.
Leading into Friday’s broadcast, the ABC News site is featuring several online stories about discredited arson evidence this week. You can read those pieces here and here.
Federal prosecutors and investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms contended that Severns must have set the fire in his gun shop because they found what’s called multiple points of origin at the scene. This typically indicates the work of an arsonist because accidental fires almost never start in more than one place.
But two of the most respected fire scientists in the country—Gerald Hurst of Austin and Florida-based John Lentini—believe the fire was accidental. They say a frayed electrical cord found at the scene ignited a small fire on a workbench that caused a nearby case of aerosol cans to explode and spread flames all over the shop. In essence, they say, an aerosol can explosion caused the appearance of multiple points of origin. And a recently discovered video of a test fire—run by the ATF itself—shows that aerosol cans can spread fire and make an accidental fire appear like an arson. "Spray cans can create the illusion of multiple origins," Hurst told the Observer last year.
Even the prosecution’s star witness—when questioned by the Observer about the new evidence—conceded that the aerosol-can scenario was possible.
Here’s the opening to our investigative report from April 2009:
Severns' original 30-year sentence has since been reduced. A federal appeals court last year determined the sentence was egregious. But even so, Severns has been in prison for nearly four years now and still has more than a decade left to serve—10 years away from his wife and children, sitting in a cell for a crime he almost assuredly didn’t commit.
Mann's enterprise reporting has brought this and other arson cases to the public view. Earlier coverage of Mann's reporting begins with this post.
An earlier reference to tonight's program is here.