Three men convicted of murder by arson for a 1980 fire in Brooklyn are likely to be exonerated on Wednesday. One served 33 years. Another went blind in prison. The third died there.
Their convictions started with righteous rage over the death of a mother and her five children in a fire on Sackett Street. The New York of the 1970s and early 1980s was in the grip of arson fever, with more than 9,000 fires set annually, mostly in the Bronx and Brooklyn. (There were about 2,500 serious fires of any kind in 2014.)
What carried the three men into prison was not reliable evidence of an intentionally set blaze, but rather an arson investigation that was more like shamanism than science, rooted in hunches and folklore and disconnected from the dynamics of actual fires. Like the comparisons of bite marks, hair and handwriting, it was a forensic practice that had the authority of white-coat laboratory science but virtually none of its rigor. Read more.