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Fire Science in Harold Staten's Case

Harold Staten challenges his 1986 conviction for arson and murder primarily based on newly discovered scientific evidence. After a careful review of the extensive developments in the field of fire investigation in the last thirty years, including expert opinions on the same, the Commonwealth finds that many of the beliefs and fire investigation practices relied upon by the Commonwealth’s expert at trial are unsupportable by modern fire science, and agrees that Mr. Staten is entitled to relief.
Today, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, with the Commonwealth’s agreement, vacated Harold Staten’s conviction and dismissed all charges against him. Harold has now been exonerated after wrongfully spending nearly four decades in prison for arson and murder in connection with a 1984 home fire in Philadelphia. Investigators determined that the fire was intentionally set almost immediately upon responding to the scene.

Through the revolution in fire investigations that occurred in the decades since that investigation, we now know that conclusion was incorrect. In 1992, the National Fire Protection Association published the first edition of NFPA 921 - the “Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigations - which, for the first time, brought the scientific method to the field of fire investigation. It took years for the fire investigation community to accept this new approach

Harold was able to seek post-conviction relief based on the publication of the 2021 edition of NFPA 921, which adds a whopping 100 new sections on the topic of fire effects and fire patterns, both critical to analyzing the fire in this case. In the words of the drafters themselves, The 2021 edition of 921 marks some of the most substantial changes since the original publication.” NFPA 921, Preface (2021 ed.).
“When an accurate area of origin cannot be determined, no cause (accidental or arson) determination can be made.” 
Fire investigators initially concluded that the 1984 fire at 3011 N. Percy Street was set in the home’s vestibule based on visual interpretation of the fire patterns alone. They stuck to this conclusion despite laboratory testing showing that no accelerants were found in the floorboards collected from this area. We now know that sources of ventilation can account for fire patterns previously understood to indicate a fire’s point of origin and that the effects of a fire reaching the point of flashover can distort fire patterns. There was a broken window above the door in the vestibule in this case offering ventilation, and the fire’s resulting flashover as a likely explanation for the burn effects that led the original fire investigator to determine the vestibule as the origin of the fire. Through the lens of modern fire science, experts agree that the cause of this fire is undetermined.
“Without an arson determination, the only remaining evidence that the fire was a crime is McCurry’s testimony, which the trial court noted was contradictory.”

Our updated understanding of fire science is so critical in Harold’s case in large part because the original trial’s outcome would likely have been different without the arson determination, given discrepancies and contradictions in the principal witness’ testimony. Indeed, without proof of an intentionally set fire, the Commonwealth would not have been able to proceed to trial against Harold at all.

Read Harold's Case Profile

Reinvestigating arson cases has been a core part of the Project’s work. Harold Staten’s is the fifth case in which we have helped to gain a favorable outcome for people convicted of arson and murder based on flawed understanding of fire science. Other resolved cases include Greg Brown's, Teri Smallwood's, Han Tak Lee's, and James Hugney's. Another recent client, Elwood Hopkins, unfortunately passed away before his court hearing. And in a current case in Westmoreland County, we recently won an appeal allowing our client to proceed to a hearing on claims similar to those that allowed Harold to obtain his freedom.

This is just one fascinating area in which our understanding of developments in forensic sciences can have a powerful impact for innocent people. Nationwide, as reported by the National Registry of Exonerations, false or misleading forensic evidence was involved in 25% of exonerations since tracking began in 1989, and in 30% of exonerations of murder convictions.

Be sure to subscribe to Project email updates and stay tuned for a forthcoming Rutgers University Law Review article about the challenges in litigating post-conviction cases based on evolving forensic science from Legal Director Nilam Sanghvi and former Senior Staff Attorney Amelia Maxfield.

All quotes are taken from the Commonwealth’s January 2024 response to Harold’s Post Conviction Relief Act petition. 

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