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Junk Arson Science Sent Claude Garrett to Prison for Murder 25 Years Ago (theintercept.com)
88 points by danso 6 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments





If you haven't read The New Yorker story about Cameron Todd Willingham, a man (almost certainly innocent) who was executed in Texas based on junk arson science, you should rectify that as soon as possible: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/07/trial-by-fire


Horrifying. The entire legal system is supposed to be based on the concept that it is better to let the guilty walk than destroy an innocent person. Instead of evidence they used federal agents as expert witnesses providing evidence free accusation. It is almost like prosecutors pursue cases based on the likelihood of winning instead of actual evidence.

> The entire legal system is supposed to be based on the concept that it is better to let the guilty walk than destroy an innocent person.

This is true if you believe that there is a final justice. However, in a secularizing society that doesn’t believe in God or final judgement, if you want justice it has to be here and now since it will not come any other way.


How can you call that justice when innocents are imprisoned for crimes that did not commit while the criminals go free ?

That concept comes from the belief that it is worse to punish an innocent than to let a culpable go free. Call that utilitarian if you will but it has nothing to do with a hypothetical final judgment.


On the contrary, how can you rationalize locking up an innocent person unless you believe they will be redeemed at The End?

True. Too many people accept the evil of false convictions because they believe in life eternal, that unjust suffering during life will be rewarded afterwards. I'd rather get things right now than roll those dice.

I get the logic here. But in many religions god is the source of justice. Got no idea if OP is a Christian or not but there are plenty of judicial proceedings in portions of the Bible that lots of Christians overlook, particularly about the requirement for at the least two or three witnesses (which doesn't necessitate eyewitness but at least two credible witnesses) before a conviction takes place. There is also plenty of case law in the Hebrew scriptures about not imprisoning or punishing someone if there is no evidence (e.g. establishment of sanctuary cities for accused persons to go to while a just trial is pending).

Just to pick a small nit here, OT law is not considered binding on Christians today by most Christian theologies.

It's valuable for understanding the NT, but not considered binding as law.


What processes need to fall in place to systematically reevaluate all the old arson cases? This seems like a data problem that needs indexing and reevaluating. I know it's not that simple, but there has to be a way to undo bad decisions.

It won't happen. If we reevaluate arson cases, people will push for a wide reevaluation of other convictions based on types of evidence that have been shown to be flawed. This includes hair analysis, fingerprint analysis, bite mark analysis, bullet analysis, and eyewitness accounts. Too much added work and a truth too painful to acknowledge.

Also, the criminal Justice system is notoriously confident and resilient to self examination. It's amazing what it can take to get even one person a new trial.

I think a lot of the "confidence" is taken essentially philosophically too. A lot of people who are willing to work on the prosecution side firmly believe in some type of "procedural justice", the notion that a verdict reached by properly following all legal processes, even if factually incorrect, is a just verdict. There's a big "assuming the process is fair" part of that belief, but those people don't go in thinking the process is unfair, and then also contributing to the process being unfair.

Even DNA analysis can be flawed.

While it is not perfect, the other examples have been shown to basically be fraudulent. Different levels of flawed.

DNA has been used to help free people, but even when the evidence is available it's often suppressed to get a conviction.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innocence_Project


It still isn't perfect, and the certainty of a match has been over sold to get convictions too. It's rare, and requires intentionally misleading people, while my other examples could be wrong with everybody trying to be honest.

Not the most horrifying abuse of forensics I've read.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33296669-the-cadaver-kin...


Amazing book. It's shocking how much of the forensic "science" that the media has conditioned us to see as infallible is actually mostly junk. Even fingerprint analysis has less than stellar experimental track record: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fingerprint#Criticism.

You know what they used to call 'junk science'?

'Science'.

Apart from the particular injustice of this and other cases, it would behoove everyone to be a little more circumspect and humble about what we believe we know.


The problem is there's a harsh disincentive for admitting that in any criminal 'science' because doing anything other than pretending the science is perfect and infallible would undermine the criminal case.

Forensic science doesn't need to be good science. It just needs to impress juries.

The methods should at least be peer reviewed.

> the trial prosecutor had concealed a police report in which a key witness said the back-room door had been unlocked.

Never let the truth get in the way of a conviction.


Is this even technically illegal? Is framing someone a crime?

US judges have decided that judges and prosecutors have complete legal immunity for anything they may do in pursuit of their duties.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosecutorial_immunity


And this immunity was created out of nothing, backed by nothing. One of the front runners for president in 2020 literally argued in an appeals court that her prosecutors should have been allowed to fabricate and withhold evidence during prosecutions. Instead of being a pariah and banished from public life, there's a decent chance she'll bring this same mentality to the presidency.

I'm assuming you must be talking about Kamala Harris? Do you have a link?

"Incredibly, the State of California, via Attorney General Kamala Harris, decided to appeal the case. The state's key argument: That putting a fake confession in the transcript wasn't "outrageous" because it didn't involve physical brutality, like chaining someone to a radiator and beating him with a hose."

https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/03/08/justice-ho...

This should have ended her career, as it is unforgivable. But she might be the epitome of the downside of "good ol boy" politics.


Wow. That's unconscionable. I've been involved with the legal system enough that little surprises me anymore, but that's a new one.

You have a link that's not an opinion piece? I've searched for this court case and anytime Kamala Harris is mentioned, the articles are blogs or very suspect reporting websites. Also they all have identical content, looking as if each website copy and pasted the content between themselves.

I googled the judge's name plus the name of the case and the first result was the hearing transcript.

If you're a Kamala Harris fan, prepare to be traumatized.

https://www.courtlistener.com/opinion/2781830/people-v-velas...


I'm indifferent to her in any regard but it would be interesting to see if this gets more attention as we get closer to 2020. Seems fairly straight-forward that she was defending the right of a prosecutor to get away with fabricating evidence.

Actually no, that's not what was being argued.

They state was arguing that the defendant should still be tried on the remaining evidence because they weren't fooled by the prosecutorial misconduct.

In essence the defendant shouldn't be rewarded for the prosecutorial misconduct.

While the behavior of the prosecutor was clearly abhorrent, it is reasonable for the state to take this position.


>In essence the defendant shouldn't be rewarded for the prosecutorial misconduct.

no, that's not what was being argued. The decision uses the established precedent that defendant is to be "rewarded" in case of "outrageous or conscience shocking" prosecutorial misconduct. Kamala didn't argue against that. What, in the words of the judges listening to her, she argued is:

" On appeal, however, the People dispute that Murray’s misconduct was outrageous or conscience shocking in a constitutional sense, as it was not physically brutal.

...

According to the People, this language stands for the proposition that misconduct must be “brutal” in order to shock the conscience and support a sanction of dismissal. "

May be you think that the judges misunderstood the arguments presented by the "People" ? :)


I agree with your position after reading the findings. Basically Kamala Harris was, acting on behalf of the state, attempting to set a precedent for physical violence being present before a client's case could be dismissed regardless of other prosecutorial misconduct.

That's not what that wikipedia article says. Do you have a source backing up your claim?

The article says that they have immunity from civil prosecution for claims arising from procedural abuses in initiating a prosecution and in stating the state's case. That doesn't sound at all the same as "complete legal immunity". By my read of that sentence, if they commit a crime, they are still liable to criminal prosecution - you just couldn't initiate a civil prosecution against them.


This is just nuts. Prosecutors have been given enormous trust and power by the people so they also should have enormous responsibility and be held to the highest standards.

Not a lawyer, but I believe this generally falls under "obstruction of justice" in the US. It appears to be a felony in most jurisdictions.

Probably tricky to prosecute though, since you would have to prove intent versus, say, incompetence.

The penalties seem pretty low too, and not correlated with the potential damage.


Sounds like the original investigator knows he sent an innocent man to prison. What an absolutely horrible human being.

I think it sounds like he believes firmly in his own instincts, and those instincts point out mr Garret.

If he "believes in his own instincts," he should be fired and not given a job that requires any level of intelligence or acumen.

Gut feelings almost invariably lead to witch hunts. Garrett was the witch this time around, how many others have also been hunted by this guy?


He was an arson investigator. Instincts should be left out of final conclusions. If you don't have hard scientific proof you don't have evidence.

>... his own instincts ...

Wow.

We're putting people in prison at 40 to 50 grand a year because, well, "instinct".


It's the people receiving that yearly rate that are the true criminals; still, drinks all around.

Of course, that is very damning for the fire investigator. Maybe he is the one who should be behind bars for willfully ignoring evidence.

You don't convict on "instincts".

State sanctioned violence in the form of imprisonment being enforced by individuals whose egos can't accept that methods change. I find it unsettling to say the least. But then I guess actors like agent Cooper need to hide behind fortresses of self assurance or else they'd never be able to testify against anyone. How else do you take life away from someone? You need the utmost assurance in your methods.



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