Encouraging cooperation in arson prosecutions

CarolinaFireJournal - DOUG ROSS
01/11/2010 -

Over the past few issues I have discussed certain issues that negatively affect the fire and arson investigator in the Carolinas. This article will be no different. A troubling statistic that hasn’t varied over the past decade is the conviction rate for individuals charged with arson —two to four percent! (USFA). Think about that number for a minute. With only a two to four percent conviction rate, 96 arson cases are either lost in court, nol prossed or the prosecutor chooses not to take the case to trial for various legal reasons. That isn’t acceptable.


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We must improve on the conviction rate and it starts with the investigator at the scene. We must strive to do a complete and concise investigation so the prosecution will have something to work with if the case makes it to trial. Historically, prosecutors are leery of cases with nothing but circumstantial evidence. And arson prosecution can’t be prosecuted by one unfamiliar with fire investigation training. The prosecution prefers to have a “smoking gun” to be able to show the jurors. Unfortunately, many arson cases are made using circumstantial evidence only and the only “smoking gun” lies within an evidence container that has a complex laboratory analysis report attached.

 We must do our very best from the beginning as we don’t know which fire scene will eventually transition to an arson crime scene. In essence, we only get one chance to do it right. Doing it right means doing our best. If there is a “smoking gun” laying in our fire scene we must be cognizant of that fact and seize the opportunity to collect it and preserve it for our prosecution team.

What else can we do to enhance our efforts? Total cooperation with all participants of the prosecution is expected and the cooperation level between the field investigator and the prosecutor has been lacking for years. In so many jurisdictions, the prosecutor’s first involvement in the case is just before the assigned trial date. We must strive to include the prosecutors early on in the process in order to be successful. Sharing critical knowledge of fire behavior and investigation protocol with the just as critical legal issues is a must!

If you feel your prosecutor(s) lack experience in the prosecution of arson cases, maybe you should encourage them to come to the fire scenes while the investigation is ongoing. There isn’t a better way to “learn the ropes” then by jumping in the ashes first-hand!

After the first of the year I plan on being more specific in how the cooperation level of investigators and prosecutors can be achieved. But now, I want to bring attention to what I feel like will be a new motivation for arson: gang-related arsons!

First, let’s discuss a few facts on gang activity in our region. Gang violence has increased in South Carolina nearly 1000 percent over the past 10 years. Gang activity isn’t necessarily tied to the urban areas as one might think.

Recent studies have found that patterns of gang-related arsons are on the increase. For instance, a young gangbanger tossed a Molotov cocktail into the apartment of a woman who had quarreled with another woman who was a friend of the gang.

In St. Paul., Minnesota, another firebomb was tossed into a dwelling to intimidate a potential witness against a local gang. The end result: five children were killed!

Another firebomb was thrown into an apartment occupied by over a dozen people. The result was tragic. Ten people died in that fire which was attributed to direct gang activity. Sgt. Rick Wiley of the Philadelphia Police Department calls the gang-related arsons as “urban terrorism.” He said “the weapon of choice for many gangs is becoming the Molotov cocktail.” This isn’t good, folks!

“It’s the stupidity of the gangs. They just don’t care,” Chicago Police Detective Cmdr. Joseph Salemme commented on the increase in gang-related arsons. There is an endless listing of similar incidents in the United States. Whether or not we will notice a marked increase of gang-related arsons in the Carolinas remains to be seen. Only time will tell. Just be aware of this new motivation for a new breed of arsonists. We will explore this more in the coming year.

Doug Ross is a retired veteran, 31 years as a law enforcement officer in South Carolina. Twenty-seven of those years were focused on Arson Investigations as a Greenville, SC Police Officer. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his webpage at FireFuzzEnterprises.com.
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