Student Case Update: Arson or Accident?

Jimmy has spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit. Jimmy was convicted of killing his wife and two young sons in 1995 by setting his house on fire while the three slept inside, but has always maintained his innocence. While the house fireprosecution used evidence that may have been admissible in the mid-1990’s, arson science has since changed dramatically. Much of what was used to convict Jimmy would most likely not hold up in court today.
Some of the most persuasive pieces of evidence used against Jimmy in his trial were the samples collected by an accelerant sniffing dog. The prosecution argued that Jimmy purposefully set the fire by using gasoline. To test for the presence of gasoline, an accelerant detecting dog was used.

The problems with the accelerant sniffing dog’s evidence were glaring. While the dog identified 12 samples in Jimmy’s house as having accelerant, when lab tested, only two of those samples, tested positive for accelerant. Subsequent tests done by the defense, following federal arson guidelines, eliminated another sample. Eleven out of twelve times, Dogthe accelerant sniffing dog was wrong. In fact, the only sample in which the dog was correct was an empty gas can in the yard that visibly smelled of gasoline to the human nose!

The accelerant sniffing dog’s evidence was only the tip of an iceberg of inaccurate or untrustworthy evidence that was used to convict Jimmy. Subsequent knowledge of incentivized witness testimony, problematic technology, and suspect circumstantial evidence have supported Jimmy’s story of innocence. Yet, already convicted and with no money to appoint counsel, Jimmy faces spending the rest of his life in jail. In our criminal justice system, guilt is determined when a jury believes that the accused has committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. I have more than a reasonable doubt that Jimmy is innocent. Do you?

- Yosha Gunasekera, Univ. of Pennsylvania School of Law, 2015

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