Terri's Fire E-mail Excerpts

"He did not even consider the wire" (April 9 - 17, 1998) 

As they wait for the prosecutor to reconsider the case in light of the new evidence they have presented, Terri Hinson Strickland and Jerry Hurst critique the SBI's initial investigation. 

From: Terri Hinson 
To: Gerald L. Hurst 
Date: 05:36 PM 4/9/98 
Subject: Re: Matt White/meeting

Hi. I hope you are ready for this one. Linda contacted the attorney general's office today to see if they could help expedite the decision from the DA. In the process of explaining what has been going on, it came out that you guys were here and held the meeting on the 1st. 
 


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What I need from you and Ken is a summary of what was said at this meeting. Most importantly, what Matt White had to say in reference to what you found in the inspection of the house. Please get with Ken and let me know ASAP. I don't know when or if I will get a call in reference to this and need to be prepared. In my opinion, the evidence speaks for itself. Was the meeting recorded in any manner that you know of? And I think Ken mentioned that another man was present. Do you have a name? I will talk to you soon. 

Thanks-- 

Terri 

From: Gerald L. Hurst 
To: Terri Hinson 
Date: Thu, 9 Apr 98 17:50:15 
Subject: Re: Matt White/meeting 

During the Wite meeting, there were present myself, Ken gibson, the assistant DA in charge of your case and your two attorneys. The most telling statement by White, which he repeated, was that he did not even consider the wire because the origin was in the closet. He also failed to note the combustible insulation or in any way extend his investigation beyond the closet itself because he was certain it started there. This statement drew a long lecture from Ken about the unacceptibility of this myopic procedure. 

If the FBI gets involved they will interview all of us. I will forward this entire post to Ken so he can write up his recollection of the meeting. 

I will also send copies of Charles Manning's article to Ken and your attorneys. 

Jerry 

From: Gerald L. Hurst 
To: Terri Hinson 
Date: Tue, 14 Apr 98 04:29:41 
Subject: Reporter

I have written up a little summary of my involvment in the case, which I am attaching below. You will have to be the one to decide what you want to do with it. 

Jerry 

I learned 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 her. 

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. 

Conspicuously absent 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." 

Insurance investigators 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 circuit. 

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 observations, including: 

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 the ceiling 

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 burned through 

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 or protect. 

From: Ken Gibson 
To: Terri Hinson 
Date: Fri, 17 Apr 1998 00:16:22 
Subject: The Day

Terri, 

I understand tomorrow is THE DAY when you find out if there is any justice in this world. I have my fingers crossed that there will be dancing in the streets at your place. Little did I know four years ago when Hurst was dying and I spent the day convincing him that if he got a new liver, he might be able to make a difference with his vast knowledge and intelligence, that this would be the result. You know he has to have a logical reason for everything he does and four years ago he was convinced that he had had a good life and was ready to die. I am glad I had some influence with him. 

Please let me hear from you as soon as you find out something. I feel like you and Rodney are family. 

Ken 
 


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