Science Casts Doubt on Arson Convictions
EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. — The firefighters could see the blaze flickering over the hill before they even reached the church camp.
By the time they got to the five-room cabin, it was already too late. Ji Yun Lee lay curled in a ball on the floor. Flames roared over and around her.
Her father, Han Tak Lee, sat silent, barefoot on the grass outside. The night sky above him glowed orange as electrical arcs sizzled and popped.
Investigators quickly sifted through the sooty ashes, the charred walls and floor, the melted roof and the buckled pipes and came up with an explanation: arson – and murder. Lee, they said, had killed his daughter.
The clues were everywhere. From patterns on the cabin’s floor to collapsed springs on the furniture, most of the lessons taught to budding fire investigators turned up in the cabin. The local experts – the county fire marshal, a state-hired fire analyst, a chemist – spoke without hesitation that the evidence proved arson.
No one questioned their conclusion. Not the jury – not even the defense attorney disputed that the blaze was intentionally touched off with a flammable fluid.
It was a textbook case, and Lee was dealt a guilty verdict and a life sentence.
Except the textbooks were wrong. Within a few years of Lee’s conviction, scientific studies smashed decades of earlier, widely accepted beliefs about how fires work and the telltale trail they leave behind.
Today, fire investigators are taught that the clues relied upon in the 1989 investigation of the cabin fire don’t prove anything more than an accident.
And some of the leading U.S. experts on arson say that Lee – an immigrant who worked six days a week to bring his wife and daughters from South Korea to America – was the victim of a horrible tragedy, not a criminal. There could be hundreds more like him, people wrongfully convicted of arson, these experts say.
Pennsylvania courts have repeatedly rejected the argument that the prosecution’s case was built on bad science.
“I never killed my daughter. I never set the fire. I’m not the right person to be here,” Lee, now 71 and hair going gray, says through a translator during an interview at Rockview medium-security prison in central Pennsylvania. “This is not arson. This is an accident.”
A definitive count isn’t possible, but the best estimate of leading fire investigators across the country is that there could be hundreds of mistaken arson prosecutions, all built on the same ideas that were uprooted more than a decade ago.
The new arson science could become the most powerful tool to reveal wrongful convictions since DNA testing began overturning rape and murder cases in 1989. So far, 186 men and one woman have been freed because of the new technology.
This isn’t just about correcting the historical record. Not only are people behind bars because of faulty arson investigative techniques, others may be on their way. Critics say that some investigators, in rural counties and big cities, resist the new science and prosecute cases based on discredited methods.
“How do you know someone’s guilty if you don’t know a crime has been committed?” says Richard Custer, principal architect of a pivotal document on arson.
Another investigator – John J. Lentini, a widely known fire expert who has worked with national arson investigation groups to unravel the old misconceptions – has been a consultant on Lee’s case, analyzing evidence and testimony.
His conclusion: “While the Commonwealth’s witnesses may have believed that they were testifying truthfully, the fact is that the jury was misled by objectively false testimony.”
Things were rough for the Lee family that summer of 1989.
Han Tak and his wife, Esther Lee, had lived apart seven years while he got his start in the United States. She and their two girls stayed in Seoul.
Now the family was together in New York City and tension was high.
There were long hours at the Lees’ clothing store on Seventh Avenue near Madison Square Garden, where all the family worked. And Han Tak was too strict with the girls – too traditional, too many rules, Esther recalls as she traces the journey of her troubled marriage.
Worst of all, Ji Yun, 20 and the oldest child, was ill again after a few years of calm.
Manic depression had surfaced a year or so after they immigrated. Medication had helped, so well that she got into a prestigious art college to paint, but things were unraveling again.
“She didn’t eat. She didn’t sleep. She couldn’t be still,” says Esther, sitting in her quiet apartment in Fort Lee, N.J. A painting by Ji Yun – flowers, a blur of purple, white and green – sits next to the lone couch. “I was exhausted.”
Their Pentecostal pastor thought prayer might help. It seemed like a respite: a trip out to the countryside, hours from the city, a quiet, cool retreat with preachers and prayer.
So Lee woke early on that summer Saturday and father and daughter set off. They drove across the bridges out of New York, out on the interstate to rural Pennsylvania, to the church camp and its small, wooden cabins. And they prayed, with one and then two pastors, until the wee hours of the morning.
That’s when everything went much, much worse.
Up until the 1990s, this is what fire investigators were taught:
- Fires always burn up, not down.
- Fires that burn very fast are fueled by accelerants; “normal” fires burn slowly.
- Arsons fueled by accelerants burn hotter than “normal” fires.
- The clues to arson are clear. Burn holes on the floor indicate multiple points of origin. Finely cracked glass (called “crazed glass”) proves a hotter-than-normal fire. So does the collapse of the springs in bedding or furniture, and the appearance of large blisters on charred wood, known as “alligatoring.”
Firefighters and investigators arrived at these conclusions through decades of observation. But those beliefs had never been given close scientific scrutiny, until an effort that began in the 1970s and continued through the 1980s.
“There were a lot of rules of thumb, but very little scientific understanding,” said Jonathan Barnett, a professor of fire protection engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and a leader in the investigation of the World Trade Center collapse.
Once researchers began to apply the scientific method to beliefs about fire, they fell apart.
A major revelation came from greater understanding of a phenomenon known as “flashover.” When a fire burns inside a structure, it sends heat and gases to the ceiling until it reaches a certain temperature – and then in a critical transition, everything combustible in that space will catch fire. Instead of a fire in a room, now there is a room on fire.
When that happens, it can leave any number of signs that investigators earlier thought meant arson – like the burn holes on the floor that used to prove multiple starting points. And it can cause a fire to burn down from the ceiling – not up as investigators had been taught.
Significantly, flashover can create very hot and very fast-moving fires. And it can occur within just a few minutes, dashing the concept that only arson fires fueled by accelerants can quickly rage out of control.
And the crazed glass? It comes from water being sprayed on hot glass, not a hot fire. The collapse of bed springs and the “alligatoring” – they can’t say anything definitive about a fire’s cause.
The studies began to chip away at the old beliefs – critics call them myths – but it took years. Through the 1980s, texts at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., still taught the traditional techniques.
It wasn’t until 1992, when a guide to fire investigations by the National Fire Protection Association – “NFPA921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations” – clearly laid out, in a document relied upon by authorities nationwide, that the earlier beliefs were wrong.
“It’s not that they’re bad investigators or there’s been any conspiracy to promulgate erroneous conclusions – it’s just the way it was,” says Custer, the former associate director of the national Fire Research Laboratory and one of the principal editors of the 1992 guide.
“How many years did we think the Earth was flat?”
In the calm, cool hours before daybreak on July 29, 1989, firefighters carefully put the charred remains of Ji Yun’s body onto a blue sheet. Investigators quickly became suspicious.
When the first responders arrived at 3:22 a.m., Han Tak Lee seemed calm. He didn’t cry. He sat on a bench across from the burning cabin with two bags of luggage at his feet. He “remained complacently seated throughout,” Patrolman James D. Leigh-Manuell wrote in his police report at 9 p.m. that night.
State Trooper Thomas Jones, doubling as county fire marshal, wrote in his report a week later: “Mr. LEE remained almost emotionless and while in view of this officer made no attempts to console his wife (when she arrived from New York later that day). Mrs. LEE on the other hand was being escorted to the scene and upon nearing the burnt building almost collapsed and had to be physically assisted from the scene.”
Prosecutor E. David Christine Jr. held Lee’s demeanor against him.
“Helping her up wouldn’t be an admission of emotion, would it, ladies and gentlemen?” he asked during his closing arguments. “That is what a husband does to his wife when their daughter is dead, and only a few hours dead?”
Several jurors later acknowledged how much that swayed them.
But Koreans say that men traditionally don’t express much emotion, and never in public. And Lee is nothing if not traditional, his wife and surviving daughter say.
“Koreans don’t go crazy with emotion like Americans,” adds Dr. Louis Roh, a Korean-American deputy medical examiner in Westchester County, N.Y., who briefly was involved in one of several appeals.
Lee says now that, watching the cabin burn, he was overwhelmed and stunned into silence.
“I found that I just lost my spirit and my mind there. It felt like all the blood drained out of my body,” he says. “In Korea, men are not allowed to cry. If your daughter is suddenly found dead, there’s nothing you can do. You just lost your soul. You can’t even think.”
When authorities interviewed Lee through a translator that morning (he speaks very little English), his story didn’t convince them:
He had fallen asleep exhausted after praying and woke to the smell of smoke. Fire was in the other bedroom in the small cabin, his daughter’s bedroom. He ran out. She wasn’t outside. He ran back, called for her, didn’t hear or see her, thought she had already escaped. He threw the luggage out the door. He banged on the bathroom door and, overcome by smoke and fire, went out the back door.
Jones, who was called to the scene before dawn, had his mind made up by 8 a.m. That was when he received word from the coroner that Ji Yun had only a small amount of carbon monoxide in her blood – too little, he instantly concluded, to have died from smoke inhalation.
“It tripped a red flag to me. … This girl was probably dead when the fire started,” he testified in court. “At that point in time, instead of being at a fire scene, I was now at a crime scene.”
The coroner, however, concluded in his documentation of Ji Yun’s death that she was alive when the fire started and was killed in the blaze. Another of the state’s arguments – that Lee had poured 60 gallons of fuel oil to start the fire – was never scientifically challenged. It doesn’t stand up, Lentini argues now, because it would have flooded the cabin, turned up in chemical tests and burned the arsonist.
But the morning of the fire, with a crime already suspected, the pieces soon fit into place, lining up neatly with the lessons the investigators had been taught at the National Fire Academy.
Pour patterns on the floor that indicate multiple points of origin? Check.
“Alligatored” charring? Check.
Crazed glass? Check.
Damaged furniture springs? Check.
Investigators had the evidence to back up their suspicions. Han Tak Lee was a killer.
Lee’s lawyer never disputed the conclusion of arson. He argued instead that Ji Yun, suffering from a mental illness, had started the fire herself to commit suicide.
The family has never accepted that. She was a quiet and troubled girl, they say, but also an innocent and religious one who viewed suicide as a sin.
The jury didn’t accept the defense attorney’s argument, either. They believed the experts.
On Sept. 17, 1990, they convicted Lee of murder.
Lee’s case was largely forgotten, but not by the Korean-American community or by people in his homeland.
Koreans here bristled at what was seen as cultural prejudice, convinced he was viewed with little sympathy in small-town Pennsylvania.
Lee had been a respected businessman in New York and, back in Seoul, a high school teacher with many admirers. His students, and even former classmates, raised money for lawyers. They won support in their fight from the South Korean government, though it led to naught.
An appeal on inadequate counsel won him a hearing, but no change in the outcome.
An appeal last spring sought a new trial, arguing that scientific advances in arson investigation essentially created new evidence.
Christine, Monroe County’s district attorney, did not return repeated phone calls. An assistant argued before the court that the new science was, in effect, simply “two expert witnesses that have opposing views.” A Pennsylvania state court agreed and rejected Lee’s claim.
Lee’s attorneys appealed that decision on Nov. 27 to the state Supreme Court.
Other experts have looked at Lee’s case and agreed with Lentini’s conclusions. “That’s a perfect example of a system run amok,” says David M. Smith, a former city bomb and arson investigator in Tucson, Ariz., who retired to start his own investigation firm.
If successful, Lee’s case could become one of a few opening the door to scrutiny of arson convictions nationwide.
Another is the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in Texas after courts there refused to consider his claims of innocence. A panel of experts hired by The Innocence Project, known for its work using DNA to expose wrongful convictions, concluded that the fire that killed Willingham’s children was accidental.
It’s a nightmare, where a defendant’s truthful account is held up as lies because the court’s accepted expert is scientifically wrong, says Barry Scheck, an attorney and co-founder of The Innocence Project. “We need a systemic re-examination, an audit, of these old arson cases,” he says.
How many could be wrongfully convicted of arson?
There are 500,000 structure fires overall a year; 75,000 of them are labeled suspicious. Lentini, who has campaigned widely to improve investigators’ knowledge, says most experts he talks with believe the accuracy of fire investigators is at best 80 percent – meaning as many as 15,000 mistaken investigations each year.
Convictions are far fewer, but it’s naive to imagine some juries aren’t convinced, he says.
“Even though we’ve made enormous advances in the past 15 years, I keep getting all these cases that might as well have been done in the ’70s or ’80s,” says Gerald Hurst, a fire investigator in Austin, Texas.
The hardest part is that there’s often no clear guilty party or explanation with arson, as DNA can provide. In the Lee case, another defense investigator argued the blaze started from a short in an electrical cord, but Lentini says the hard evidence either burned up or was ignored by the county investigators, and later destroyed.
For the Lees, there’s no getting past the tragedy that took Ji Yun. But they still want one more chance from the justice system.
In prison, Han Tak Lee exudes a kind of desperate hope as he meets with a reporter and translator. For the lone Korean speaker at the 2,061-inmate prison, it is a rare chance to hear his native language. “I never regret,” he says. “I have very strong faith. I will get out as a free man.”
Back in New Jersey, his wife can’t shake her sorrow.
She doubts the justice system. She questions her own anger after her daughter’s death, guilty that it may have convinced investigators to charge her husband. And she is unsure about coming to this country at all, given what befell her family.
“We had American dream,” she says. “We dreamt about a better life. But the better life didn’t happen.”
Still, a small dream remains.
If Han Tak could be free, she would like to bring her husband a meal. Something simple – some rice, some kimchi, some barbecued meat. A meal that tastes like home.
Other Arson Convictions in Question
A handful of arson convictions that relied largely on expert testimony are being re-examined because of changes in the scientific understanding of fire. Some are already in court, while in others, defense teams are putting together a case.
Among the cases identified by different investigators and lawyers working on these new challenges to arson:
- Louis C. Taylor, sentenced to life for a 1970 fire at the Pioneer Hotel in Tucson, Ariz., that left 29 people dead. Prosecutors alleged the then 16-year-old Taylor set the fire so he could steal from hotel rooms. The Arizona Justice Project is preparing a court petition to seek a re-examination of the evidence against him.
- Kenneth Richey, who spent 20 years on death row for a 1986 fire in Columbus Grove, Ohio, that killed a toddler. A federal appeals court overturned his conviction, raising questions about whether the fire was arson at all, but the U.S. Supreme Court last year reinstated his conviction and death sentence.
- Greg Brown, convicted of arson and murder, and his mother, Darlene Buckner, convicted of insurance fraud, for a 1995 fire in Pittsburgh that took the lives of three firefighters. The Innocence Institute at Point Park University in Pittsburgh is working on the case.
- George Souliotes, sentenced to life in prison for a 1997 fire in Modesto, Calif., that killed a mother and her two children. Souliotes, a landlord, had been trying to evict the family and investigators claimed he was trying to collect insurance money. The California Supreme Court rejected his latest appeal.
- Letitia Smallwood, sentenced to life in prison for a 1972 apartment house fire in Harrisburg, Pa. Prosecutors alleged that she started the fire because she was angry with her boyfriend and his live-in girlfriend. The question of arson was never originally disputed in court by her defense attorney.
- Garland Leon “Butch” Martin, sentenced to three life sentences for the deaths of his common-law wife and her two children in a 1998 fire in Midland, Texas. Defense experts contend investigators ignored evidence of an accident.
AP Interactive Designer Jenni Sohn contributed to this story.