Playing With Fire: How Junk Science Sent Claude Garrett to Prison for Life

Liliana Segura, Playing With Fire: How Junk Science Sent Claude Garrett to Prison for Life. The Intercept, 24 February 2015. “Just before dawn, on the unseasonably warm morning of February 24, 1992, a small house caught fire in Old Hickory, Tennessee, a few miles northeast of Nashville. The one-story cinderblock home, located at 114 Broadway Street, in a low-income neighborhood called Hopewell, was shared by 35-year-old Claude Francis Garrett and his 24-year-old girlfriend, Lorie Lee Lance. Claude did construction jobs, and Lorie waited tables at the Uno’s Pizzeria while going to school part time. As the fire tore through the living room, devouring the furniture, smoke and flames rose rapidly behind the front windows, then burst through the door. Across the street, a dog started barking.”

Over the next few months, rumor and speculation spread. Everyone knew that Lorie worked harder than Claude. He probably resented that she was trying to make something of herself. Some people had heard that she was planning to leave him. The bartender at Daisey Mae’s initially told police that the couple seemed fine the night before the fire. But later, she thought about something Lorie had said as she got more beer for Claude. Lorie “told us that she had to get back because she’d been away too long,” the bartender would later testify, adding that Lorie seemed “scared” of him. Before long, the family’s recollections would align with the state’s theory: Lorie’s death was the culmination of an abusive relationship. On June 2, 1992, Claude was arrested in Kansas. Three days later, he was picked up by Nashville police and brought back to Davidson County to face trial for first-degree murder.

Claude was tried the following August, with Assistant District Attorney General John Zimmermann, a former JAG lawyer and member of the Tennessee National Guard, representing the state. Trim and distinguished, Zimmermann was a God-and-Country man — a devout Christian who married his high school sweetheart, with whom he was raising several foster children….

Zimmermann cast Claude Garrett as a violent drunk who had forced Lorie into the utility room and then poured kerosene everywhere to burn down the house. The case had gaps: no clear motive or consensus on Claude as physically abusive, no evidence of a struggle. The door lock, despite being key to the state’s case, was not introduced as evidence — only photographs were presented. And only one witness, Fire Captain Otis Jenkins, insisted the utility room door had been locked at all….

The star witness was ATF Agent James Cooper. Zimmermann made sure the jury heard about his role investigating the Dupont hotel fire, as well as the bombing of the World Trade Center earlier that year. Cooper used slides to walk the jury through the signs of a deliberately set fire. There was the telltale “V” shape identifying the point of origin, in this case, in the living room near the front door. There was the charring, the irregular patterns that form after someone has poured a liquid accelerant on the ground. And there was the bedspread that had been used as a trailer, which tested positive for kerosene. Cooper was especially adamant about the pour patterns. “This is not a spill,” he insisted under cross-examination. “This is a pour and it was deliberately poured to get the fire going from the living room to the back of the house.”…

On August 20, 1993, after two and a half days of deliberations, the jury found Claude Garrett guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

The first person exonerated for arson murder, according to the National Registry of Wrongful Convictions, was Ray Girdler Jr. in Arizona, in December 1991 — two months before the Hopewell fire. Girdler had been convicted of burning his wife and child to death in their trailer park home in 1981. He swore he was innocent, but his behavior the night of the fire had been bizarre. As firefighters battled the blaze, Girdler had gone to his neighbor and asked for a beer, which he drank on the couch with no sign of emotion. Yet 10 years later, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Advances in fire science have wrought a stunning turnabout, providing explanations for the fire that suddenly seem to justify Girdler’s version of events.”

Today, 23 years after the fire in Hopewell, Claude Garrett, too, maintains his innocence — and there are a number of people who are convinced he is telling the truth. Chief among them is a veteran Tennessee fire investigator who insists the conviction was a miscarriage of justice — “and there are others besides Claude in jail for things they did not intentionally do.” Indeed, the same advances in fire analysis that exonerated Girdler more than 20 years ago in Arizona have continued to expose fires once believed to be intentional or “incendiary” as most likely accidental. Numerous people have been freed from prison after spending years behind bars for arson crimes that were never crimes at all. Garrett’s case contains hallmarks of such wrongful convictions — pervasive myths that guided arson investigations for decades, which still haunt the criminal justice system.

Most famous among wrongful arson convictions is the Texas case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of killing his three young daughters in a fire and put to death in 2004. In The New Yorker, investigative journalist David Grann described in dramatic detail how, days before Willingham’s execution, a renowned fire scientist named Gerald Hurst rushed to show the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that the fire in his case had almost certainly been an accident. With evidence of prosecutorial misconduct emerging after Willingham’s death, today it is perhaps the most widely accepted example of a wrongful execution in the modern death penalty era.

Garrett’s case has a number of striking parallels with Willingham’s. The house fires took place just two months apart, in working-class neighborhoods. Like Garrett, Willingham drank too much and had an explosive temper. Like Garrett, Willingham, too, was described as hysterical the morning of the fire by witnesses who would later change their minds, saying “things were not as they seemed.” And, like Garrett, Willingham’s claims of innocence were undermined by his criminal record and bad reputation. In Willingham’s case, prosecutors pointed to his tattoos and heavy metal posters as proof that he had morbid — even satanic — tendencies.

Most significantly, as both men awaited trial in the summer of 1992, seismic changes were taking place in the field of arson investigation. Based on new research into fire behavior, experts were questioning longstanding techniques for determining the origin and cause of a fire. Classic arson “indicators” were revealed to be no such thing. The investigators in both Willingham’s and Garrett’s cases relied on longstanding fallacies that were just beginning to be exposed.

Among the most prevalent false indicators were “burn patterns” like the ones found in the homes of both Willingham and Garrett. For decades, fire investigators called such marks “pour” patterns, based on the belief that a liquid accelerant had been spilled wherever they appeared, in order “to create a very hot and fast burning fire,” as Kenneth Porter would observe. But this scenario was a myth. It was rooted in ignorance of a phenomenon now known as “flashover” — the point at which radiant heat building up in a room causes a space and its contents to combust. Or as some fire experts put it, the moment “a fire in a room becomes a room on fire.” As researchers would discover, fires that reach flashover (or “post-flashover” fires) often leave such so-called pour marks behind. Similarly, the V-pattern once believed to reveal a fire’s point of origin was also found to be a false indicator — and a common feature of post-flashover fires.

The implications are hard to overstate. The National Registry of Exonerations lists only a relative handful of arson convictions among its tally of more than 1,550 innocence cases, yet, like wrongful convictions as a whole, the number of people who have been falsely accused of arson is likely much higher….

The failure to account for junk science goes far beyond arson prosecutions. While court rulings have significantly raised the bar for admissible scientific evidence in criminal trials — excluding, for example, polygraph tests like the one failed by Garrett at the Nashville police station — convictions continue to be won and upheld on the basis of dubious forensic evidence. In 2009 the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report that raised doubts about a wide range of prevailing forensic techniques. Of particular concern were methods relying primarily on “observation, experience, and reasoning” rather than science or data — a good description of how professional fire investigators have traditionally operated. Citing burn patterns specifically, the NAS warned that some investigators still draw conclusions about whether a fire was arson based on such evidence, “despite the paucity of research” into its legitimacy.

Recent experiments have yielded troubling results. In one 2005 test, ATF researchers asked 53 professional fire investigators to pinpoint the origin of a series of post-flashover fires. Only three were able to do so accurately — most drew false conclusions based on burn patterns. In 2011, a test conducted by  the California-based Arson Research Project asked professional fire investigators to assess 12 post-flashover burn patterns and distinguish between those that involved a liquid accelerant and those that did not. In reality, there is no way to tell the difference based on visual evidence alone. Yet out of 33 investigators, only three responded that such a conclusion could not be determined based on this evidence.

In a subsequent report, the Arson Research Project warned that between their subjective methodology and close identification with law enforcement, fire investigators are “uniquely positioned” to be susceptible to the affects of cognitive bias — in which one’s perception is colored by preexisting knowledge or assumptions. In a criminal investigation, the more contextual details a forensic analyst is given by police, the more likely he or she is to unconsciously reach conclusions that support the state’s theory. To mitigate this, the NAS report argued that forensic analysts should operate as independently from law enforcement as possible. But fire investigations involve the opposite approach, the Arson Research Project report said, instead embracing arson task forces in which “the lines between fire scene examiner and criminal investigator are not just blurred but are obliterated.”…

Just weeks before the fire, the Massachusetts-based National Fire Protection Association released NFPA 921: Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations. Despite its innocuous title, the guidebook was a grenade tossed into the field of fire investigation. Based on years of joint research by fire investigators and engineers, NFPA 921 debunked longstanding beliefs about the indicators of arson, holding for the first time that fire investigators should base their work on the scientific method, rather than their individual training and judgment. Practically, this meant investigators needed to collect data from a fire scene, test hypotheses about how the blaze began, and reach a firm conclusion only if there was a lone surviving theory that could pass these tests.

This was a radical departure from the way professional fire investigators operated. Most were former firefighters or law enforcement with no scientific background — and many regarded the NFPA task force behind the guide as elitist and academic, far removed from the gritty reality of fire-scene work. Their own training had come from accompanying veteran fire investigators on the job, as they exercised their powers of observation. “There is no substitute for this experience,” wrote John R. Carroll, the head of the National Association of Fire Investigators, in a 1979 textbook. The best fire investigators seemed to possess a mysterious sixth sense that made them preternaturally powerful detectives. In a noir-style 1976 memoir titled Arson! Exciting True Cases From a Fire Marshal’s Notebook, New York fire investigator John Barracato described fire marshals as “guys [who] could pick a deliberately set fire as easily as a doctor could read a bone break in an x-ray film.” The image was so deeply ingrained that more than 20 years later, in 1997, Barracato told The New York Times that through observational powers alone, “a properly trained fire investigator, before he leaves that fire scene, should be able to determine if a male set it, a female, if it was revenge motivated, juvenile, arson for profit.”