of the Terri Hinson case when she was referred to me by Tony Cafe, a well-known
fire expert in Australia. Mr. Cafe has a very informative web site in which
he publishes numerous papers of interest to fire investigators. Tony and
I had been in contact previously when I sought help from him in the interpretation
of mass chromatograms in the Sonia Cacy case. Tony immediately recognized
the similarity between the two cases and told Terri to contact me.
When Terri was indicted,
she had the foresight to purchase a computer and get on the internet in
search of technical help which would otherwise have been unavailable to
I managed to obtain
a complete set of case materials which had been furnished by the prosecution
to the defense attorneys. Fortunately, Terri had copies of most of the
paperwork which she forwarded to me as soon as she developed a rapport
with me via telephone calls and a multitude of e- mail letters. It took
much longer to get the approval and cooperation of her attorneys, who were
naturally skeptical of a stranger from Texas who was meddling in their
case. Eventually, though, they sent me a complete set of documents which
included a few items not in Terri's possession, such as a set of pictures
taken by her court-appointed expert, Mr. Sox.
Even from a thousand
miles away, it became evident that the investigation by the State and insurance
investigators had been superficial and that they had jumped to a conclusion
of arson too quickly and with too little basis in either physical or circumstantial
evidence. The sole physical evidence on which they based their assertion
that this was an incendiary fire started in deceased child's closet was
the presence of burn patterns in the closet and ceiling which they described
in various terms as "burning upward."
I realized that they
were probably correct in their description of the patterns but it was also
obvious to me even from afar that such a pattern would also be an unavoidable
consequence of an attic fire above the closet. The ceiling and the roof
immediately above the closet were made of wood which would produce falling
embers which would necessarily set the clothing on fire, melt the hangers
and drop the flaming load in the bottom of the closet.
It is a well accepted
principle that a fire burning downward through a hole in a wooden surface
into a fuel load will produce first downward patterns followed by upward
patterns which obliterate the original upward marks.
from the state's reports were any clear references to the relative amount
of destruction in the attic above the closet as compared to that within
the closet. Another tenet of fire investigation is that the depth of burning
is generally greatest in the area of origin, yet the state investigators
had apparently ignored the attic.
Even more surprising
was the absence of mention of the electrical Romex cable visible in the
pictures of the closet ceiling. This cable with one of the two conductor
wires clearly broken and dangling through the middle of the hole in the
closet ceiling was not even mentioned in the combined State/BATF report,
which addressed only the "upward patterns."
were present at the fire scene on October 22 and 25, 1996 when the State
and federal investigators were conducting their search. The first insurance
investigator, Mr. Mangini, unlike the state investigators, did mention
the electric wire just briefly enough to dismiss it as being "a victim
of the fire." Apparently, Mr. Mangini must have felt he needed someone
with better credentials to back him up in his assertion, because the insurance
company sent in an engineer, Mr. Michael Sutton, from Accident Reconstruction
Analysis, Inc. to sanctify the dismissal of the wire as irrelevant to the
cause and origin of the fire.
Mr. Sutton described
the cable in his report as being a having two conductors, one of which
was "mechanically" broken. Aportion of the wire was melted. Mr. Sutton
added, "In addition, close examination of the conductor showed that the
phase and neutral wires contacted as a result of insulation damage caused
by the fire. THE CONDUCTOR WAS NOT A POSSIBLE IGNITION SOURCE FOR THE FIRE."
In other words Mr.
Sutton says there was a short in the wire over the closet but that it was
a product rather than a cause of the fire. To make matters worse, Mr. Sutton's
report was also signed by Dr. Charles Manning, the president of ARA and
an acknowledged expert in the area electrical fires. This is the sort of
situation that leads to the conviction of innocent victims of fires. It
is junk science. The fact is that it is impossible to determine from the
observation of an arc bead on a fire damaged wire that that arc was a product
rather than the cause of the fire. There is plenty of proof of this statement
in the fire literature but none is quite so persuasive as a recently published
article by Dr. Charles Manning on this subject. Dr. Manning, whose signature
on the fire investigation report could send Terri to death row, recently
published an article in the Fire Investigation Magazine entitled "Questions
Concerning the Use of Carbon Concentration to Identify `CAUSE' vs "RESULT'
Beads in Fire Investigations" Dr. Manning's introductory paragraph sums
up the prior art of field investigation as follows:
Beaded wiring is commonly found
at fire scenes, and often the question
arises concerning whether a particular
bead caused the fire, or resulted from
it. Attempts to utilize a bead's physical
appearance for differentiation have not
met with success.
Somebody made sure that
the defense would not wave the arced wire in front of a jury. The SBI,
who were in charge of the "crime scene" neglected to lock the house until
a month after the fire although they pronounced it arson on day one of
the investigation. Somebody climbed into the attic of the house and snipped
removed the entire section and with it the exculpatory evidence.
The prosecution does
not know who took the wire, but it is noteworthy that the car driven by
the insurance investigators at the first inspection was seen to contained
wiring from other fire scenes. This is not an accusation, merely an observation.
On March 27 I flew
with my wife to Charlotte. We met Ken Gibson, an associate from the Dallas
at his plane the next day and drove to Whiteville. The following Monday
we spent a good portion of the day investigating the fire scene.
I any such investigation,
one always looks to find things that were different on the day of a fire.
October 20, 1966 marked a sudden cold snap. Terri had obtained two powerful
electric heaters from her mother and had plugged one of them set at full
wattage (1500) downstairs and another at lesser wattage upstairs. She noted
that the cord on the downstairs heater was excessively hot to the touch
and was somewhat worried about that phenomenon. It seemed logical that
the heavy current draw of this new heater could also have heated the relatively
light gauge wiring of an old house and could have precipitated an electrical
failure in the attic over the closet if the heater was on that particular
In his report, Mr.
Mangini said only that the wire ran between the ceiling fixtures in the
child's room and the bathroom, both on the second floor. Mr. Sutton, in
his report, concurred with Mangini and added that the conductor "was part
of the circuit that serviced the second floor." If this was all there was
to that circuit, the electrical heater on the first floor would be nothing
more than a red herring.
We obtained some
duplex wire and spliced it in to replace the missing section in the attic
over the closet. We were then able to run continuity tests with an ohm
meter. With the replacement wire in place we were able to trace the current
flow to the heater. It ran from the downstairs fuse box up into the attic,
across the closet and down again where it terminated at the downstairs
heater plug. This finding gives powerful evidence to support the theory
that the fire originated in the attic as a direct result of the new and
heavy load placed on the wiring by the introduction of the electrical heater
for the first time on the night of the fire.
We made other important
1. The predominant
mass of thermal insulation in the attic was combustible ground up newspaper.
On ignition, smoldering combustion propagated at a growing rate through
a sample of test material.
2. The burn patterns
in the closet gave no indication of the stagnant hot top layer that would
have been expected from a fire in the closet with no preexisting hole in
3. The degree of
destruction in the attic was much higher than in the closet. Both 2X4 inch
rafters and the joist over the middle of the closet ceiling were completely
4. The ceiling joist
was burned through precisely where the wire passed over it.
On Wednesday we met
with the DA and the attorneys in the morning and afternoon. Agent White
was not present in the morning, but at the insistence of the attorneys
he came in the afternoon.
The District attorney
allowed me to question Mr. White about his investigation in much the same
fashion as in a courtroom. Basically, Mr. White was unable to cite any
other reason for placing the origin in the closet other than the aforementioned
upward burn patterns. He readily admitted that fall down would produce
similar patterns and that fall down was inevitable.
He also opined that
a fire originating in the closet would have breached the plywood front
wall of the closet before it broke through the thicker ceiling. I immediately
agreed with him but pointed out that the overwhelming evidence indicated
that the ceiling was breached long before the front wall as evidenced by
the presence of only slight damage to the room ceiling above that wall.
He seemed to accept this obvious conclusion and offered no other evidence
of an origin in the closet.
We asked Mr. White
if he had examined the electric wire. He said, "No" and explained that
it was not "in the area of origin' so he considered it irrelevant. Had
he paid attention to the heavier damage in the attic? "No, it was not in
the area of origin." Had he noted the presence of flammable insulation
in the attic? "No, all I saw was the pink stuff" (non-combustible fiber
glass). We showed him his own picture of the attic, revealing a huge mass
of gray ground newspaper with a minor streak of pink.
Mr. Gibson gave Mr.
White a stern lecture concerning the impropriety of failing to do what
every competent fire investigator does: Work your way out from wherever
you believe the area of origin to be until you find the REAL area of origin.
Mr. White apparently became obsessed with the idea that the closet was
the area of origin to the point where he closed his mind to the evidence
that was begging to be discovered.
Although, Mr. White
denied having compared notes with the insurance investigators who were
there when he was, I find this scenario hard to believe. Terri says they
talked when she was there and that makes a lot of sense unless this was
an investigation like no other. Mr. White did concede that he got the reports
of the two insurance agents.
I should point out
that Mr. Sox, the electrical engineer and fire expert retained by Terri's
lawyers was also present at the morning meeting and was in full agreement
with our findings and conclusions. He is a credible expert.
I conclude that the
original fire investigation was fatally flawed and that the conclusion
of arson has no basis whatsoever in the evidence. The mere existence of
upward burn patterns in the closet and its ceiling is precisely what would
be expected from an attic fire which breached the closet.
This case has always
been based on the negative corpus theory in which arson is determined as
a cause by "the elimination of all reasonably possible natural causes."
You cannot eliminate the things you do not consider. The SBI did not consider
an electrical origin because of a preconceived notion which acted like
blinders to prevent the examination of the immediate surroundings. Their
opinion was probably strengthened by the junk science used to dismiss the
electrical wiring which they never bothered to observe much less trace