An Old Fashioned, Novel Approach

More than ever it seems that the forensic aspect of criminal cases is heavily reliant on DNA, fingerprint or CCTV evidence. What happens if none of this is available?

Fires are destructive and many forms of forensic evidence, including fingerprints and DNA, can be damaged or destroyed by the heat produced. A fire in a house can exceed 900°C and as DNA starts to denature at 60°C DNA could be destroyed or incomplete if found.

Prometheus Forensic Services have been involved in a number of arson cases where DNA, fingerprint or CCTV evidence have not been found and Counsel had to rely on the skills of forensic scientists specialising in fire investigation for an old fashioned and perhaps novel approach.

Case Example

After finishing work the defendant had gone upstairs to bed whilst his housemate watched television downstairs. The defendant was woken by an alarm and discovered a fire on the staircase. It appeared that the curtains were alight, had fallen and continued to burn on the stairs. The fire developed quickly, blocking his only escape route. The defendant and his housemate managed to supress the fire to enable their escape. An examination of the fire scene was undertaken by the fire service and a police crime scene investigator. Two entirely separate areas of burning were identified and the defendant was arrested for arson with intent to endanger life.

The case against the defendant was clear: there had been a fire on the stairs and a curtain from the defendant’s room had been burnt; therefore the defendant had separately started fires on two curtains in the premises.

The housemate’s account described the defendant ‘beating’ the flames on the stairs. The defendant’s account stated that he had pulled the curtain down in his room and used this to beat the flames in order to try and extinguish the fire.

A review of the evidence showed that there was no fire damage to the wall or window in the defendant’s room and the damage to the curtain was linear and not ‘V’ shaped. This indicated that the curtain had not been vertically hung at the window when it had been burnt.

Our scientist concluded that the defendant’s account was consistent with the damage to the curtain. The fire was only in one area, the stairs, and though it was caused by ‘human agency’ there was no scientific evidence that the defendant had started the fire. A meeting with the Prosecution team resulted in agreement with our findings and the case being dismissed.

Cases such as this show that the old fashioned interpretation and evaluation of evidence can be vitally important to a case.