At the time 14-year-old Adam Gray was arrested for setting a fire that killed two people, the evidence that the fire had been intentionally set seemed unassailable, reports The Chicago Tribune.
After all, fire investigators testified that the March 1993 fire at a Brighton Park neighborhood two-flat had the markings of an arson: shiny “alligator” charring on the wood porch stairs and deep burn patterns across the first-floor landing.
What’s more, Gray confessed to Chicago police that he had set the fire with gasoline, saying he was angry because he had been spurned by a girl who lived there.
But Gray, it turns out, was caught in a forensic time warp of sorts as police and fire investigators across the country were often slow to accept advances in fire science that called into question what had long been considered unmistakable evidence of arson.
Now, nearly two decades after his conviction, Gray hopes to win his freedom after Cook County prosecutors agreed to a hearing on his claim that the fire was not arson. Two of the nation’s leading fire scientists concluded that Chicago police and fire investigators relied on flawed theories to conclude the 1993 fire was intentionally set. The scientists contend the fire should have been ruled undetermined because no evidence of arson existed.
“There’s no expert who would say at this point in time that this fire was an arson. The evidence just isn’t there,” said Brij Patnaik, an attorney at the law firm of Jenner & Block and one of Gray’s lawyers. “Scientists no longer accept the evidence that was cited at Adam’s trial as evidence of an accelerant being used.”
The new rules for fire investigation, based on rigorous scientific study over several years, were compiled in a document titled, “NFPA 921,” and first issued in the year before the fire that sent Gray to prison. But in many jurisdictions, those rules were slow to take hold, as veteran investigators clung to what now are considered disproven theories. In some police and fire departments, investigators were openly hostile to the updated science.
Today, the new rules of fire investigation are widely accepted, leading to the overturning of arson-murder convictions across the nation. In perhaps the most high-profile case, a panel of fire scientists concluded that the evidence of arson that led to the conviction of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas was flawed and that the cause of the fire that killed his three young daughters should have been classified as undetermined.
Those findings came too late for Willingham, who was executed in 2004. That led Texas to do a comprehensive review of all its arson convictions to determine if others had been convicted based on faulty fire science.
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